Professional References: Everything You Need To Know

By Chris Kolmar - May. 4, 2021

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When you venture out in search of a new job, you’ll need to include a list of professional references along with your resume. But what exactly is a professional reference, and how can it help you move forward in your career?

Here you’ll learn the ins and outs about what professional references are, who to ask for a letter of recommendation from, and how to format your list of professional references.

What Are Job References?

There are two different types of employment references: personal and professional references. These testimonials can help hiring managers obtain a better understanding of the person they are considering employing.

A personal reference is an individual that can speak to your character and what you have to offer. This form of contact is acceptable if you are new to the job market and do not have enough experience in the professional world.

Keep in mind that employers will be looking for more experienced candidates and might require you to provide professional references.

A professional reference is a person you have worked with within a company or corporation — someone who can vouch for you, like a former supervisor or colleague. They will attest to your skills, qualifications, and whether you would be right for the job.

Be sure that when gathering your sources, you pick individuals who have worked directly with you and know how well you can complete certain tasks. It should not be someone at the company that you barely spoke to or haven’t interacted with during your time.

Who to Ask to Be Your Professional Reference

Here is a list of people you should consider asking to be your reference:

  • Former employers, bosses, or supervisors. Your former immediate manager is always a strong choice to use as a professional reference. They can speak directly to your skill set, your ability to work with others, and your work ethic.

    Just make sure that you had an overall positive relationship with this person and that you left things on good terms. If your current company knows you’re searching for a new job, you can use a current supervisor. Otherwise, don’t use anyone who you currently work with.

  • A coworker or colleague. People often forget that your former coworkers can make great references. Choose someone who you worked with closely and got along with well. It’s also good practice to offer to return the favor when getting a reference from a peer.

  • A former vendor or client. Not all of the people who you’ve had professional relationships with worked at the same company as you. Especially for sales, customer service, and business development positions, including a former or current business partner can be a solid decision.

  • A former professor. This is a staple choice for most recent college graduates since few professionals can speak to your skills and personality outside of academic environments. Don’t just pick a professor whose class you got a good grade in — teachers don’t remember stuff like that.

    Instead, choose a professor who you worked closely with, sought advice from, or conducted research with. A teacher who really knows and likes you is always a better choice than a teacher whose class you aced (although if they’re one and the same, that’s even better).

  • A coach. A coach kind of blends personal and professional references, depending on what level you were competing at. Either way, nobody knows your work ethic and teamwork abilities better than your former coaches.

  • College personnel like an academic advisor. If you weren’t close with any professors at school, but had an advisor you really liked, feel free to use them as a reference.

  • An administrator at an internship. This is basically the same as getting a reference from your former supervisor. The only difference is that the experience was an internship instead of a job. Of course, only choose this person if you did a great job and were memorable during your internship.

Remember to get permission from these individuals before including them as a reference on your list. It is common courtesy to notify anyone before using their name in any professional setting. You’ll want to make sure that everyone you have listed is on board. Letting them know in advance will help them be prepared to vouch for you.

Why Do You Need a Professional Reference List?

The reason you need a list of professional references is that companies want to verify that everything you have put on your resume is accurate. The fact is that there are people that will often oversell themselves and might even exaggerate what their duties and responsibilities for the company were on their resumes.

Not only can a list of references be an excellent tool for employers, but it can also work in your favor. This list can highlight your skills and stand out against hundreds of applicants. Having someone there to back up your claims can go a long way in the employment process.

The bottom line is, you need to have a list of professional references prepared for most job applications. Usually, can send your list of professional references along with your resume. However, there are moments in the hiring process that require one to help the employers decide between you and another applicant.

Qualities of Good Professional References

When choosing which individuals should be included in your professional reference list, try to find people with the right qualities.

In particular, look for someone who:

  1. Knows your strengths. You’ll want to ask someone who has worked closely with you and knows your capabilities. Someone who knows where you excel and has seen your skills in action is a great option.

  2. Is a recent relationship. Another essential quality is to include someone who has recently worked with you. Employers might not be interested in hearing from someone you have worked with six years ago.

    Keep in mind that people grow and evolve in the workplace. The people you worked with long ago might not know how much you have accomplished and what new strengths you have gained within the last few years.

  3. Likes you. Even if you pick someone you did great work with/for recently, they won’t be a good choice unless they actually liked you. If you had any sort of rocky relationship with the person, it’s safer to skip them in favor of someone who will only speak 100% positively about you.

How to Ask for a Reference

Once you have chosen who you would like to ask to be your reference, you will need to reach out to each of them.

Remember to choose your references carefully and:

  • Ask in advance. The person you ask must agree before submitting the list to any future employer. Even if this is someone you are sure would be happy to help you out, never assume that they would be comfortable doing it without asking.

    Also, just because someone was your reference for one job posting, that doesn’t mean you should assume they’ll be there as a reference for each opportunity. Be proactive about letting your references know about each and every job opportunity you plan on using them as a reference for. You don’t want this individual to feel coerced or taken by surprise.

  • Prepare your professional references. Don’t just tell them that you’re applying for such-and-such a position and leave it at that. Ask them if they want to look over your current resume, cover letter, and job description for the job you hope to land.

    That way, they can prepare exactly what they want to say, which will make it easier for them to highlight your best qualities that are most relevant to the job.

  • Follow up. Thank your references when they agree to help and when they actually follow through. Don’t stop there, though. Keep them posted on the progress of your job hunt, and be sure to send another thank-you email when you land the job.

    People like to feel helpful — give your references that nice feeling as a reward. Additionally, if your reference was someone that you could serve as a reference for, be sure to offer that whenever they need it. Professional networking is all about a healthy mix of give and take.

You can find more information on how to ask someone to be your reference here.

Bad Quality References

A bad reference can be someone spiteful, which will negate some, if not all, the work you have included in your resume. This can ultimately hurt your chances of being hired.

Be sure that you depart on good terms with your employer when you decide to leave your current position. One of the best ways to do this is by writing a resignation letter. Giving your employer two weeks’ notice will help this transition run as smoothly as possible while keeping that barn door wide open without burning any bridges.

Another example of a bad reference is someone who has been caught off guard and is not prepared to answer any of the hiring manager’s questions. This might be seen as a lapse of judgment on your behalf.

Can I Use My Current Employer as a Professional Reference?

In the vast majority of cases, no, you should not use your current employer as a professional reference. It’s awkward at best and could get you fired at worst. In an ideal world, you should have your new job locked down before you tell your current employer that you’re quitting.

Most companies understand this predicament and won’t expect you to list your current employer as a reference. They’ll also generally ask at the interview whether it’s okay to contact certain employers.

One slightly risky option is including your current coworker(s) as references. If you trust them to keep your job search quiet, they can make a valuable addition to your list of professional references. On the other hand, if they let it slip that you’re looking for new opportunities, that could lead to a very uncomfortable situation at work.

It’s also okay to list your current employer as a reference if you’ve already discussed your interest in leaving the company with your supervisor. For example, if you’re relocating far away and your company has known that for a while, they’ll likely be happy to serve as a professional reference.

Can I Use Friends or Family as Professional References?

No, you should never use an individual who has no knowledge or a clearly biased opinion about your professional capabilities. Employers won’t take these people seriously, because they will obviously say whatever they think will help you get the job.

In fact, if you list a family member or friend, it will actually hurt your chances of getting hired.

15 Do’s and Don’ts for Professional Reference List

  1. Do not list your references directly on your resume. Though it might seem like a good idea, refrain from including your contacts directly on your resume. Let’s put it this way — your resume is prime real estate, and you don’t want to fill it with irrelevant information.

  2. Create a document that is specifically for your references. Keep in mind that one of the best ways to include your references is by providing prospective employers with a list of individuals that have previously worked with you.

  3. Proofread your document. Always make sure that anything you turn in is grammatically correct and adequately formatted.

    The standard format should include your name, address, and contact information, followed by your contact information, name, title, the company they work for, phone number, email address, anda brief description of your professional relationship.

  4. Double-check the contact information. Always make sure that the contact information that you’re adding to your reference list is current. Get in touch with your contacts and double-check that the information you have put on your list is correct.

  5. Do not include incomplete information. As mentioned above, be sure that all of your contact information is included on the list. Employers will need all of their data to corroborate that the information you have provided is factual.

  6. Include a brief description of your relationship. Hiring managers will want to know what was the dynamic between you and your reference. After you have added the person’s contact information, give a brief description that includes where and when you worked together.

  7. Wait for the hiring manager to ask you for a reference list. Do not offer to give your list during your interview; wait for the hiring manager to ask.

    Keep in mind that recruiters go through a significant amount of applications and do not have the time to sift through everyone’s work references. Chances are he or she might not even ask you for one until later on in the hiring process.

  8. Include three to five references. Generally, companies will ask you to present them with three references. Try to gather as many possible contacts as you can. You can even go as far as grouping them together, depending on what role you’re applying for.

  9. Follow-up with your contacts. Whenever you begin to venture out searching for a new career, remember to keep your references up-to-date. You do not want them to be caught off guard and be unable to answer any of the hiring manager’s questions.

  10. Divide references into categories. If you have chosen to include both character and business references, be sure to label them into separate categories properly.

  11. Never include someone you haven’t worked with as a reference. Remember to ensure that the people you include in your list have spent a significant amount of time with you and attest to your work.

  12. Do not include the contact information of your current employer. This is a big no-no if you have not informed your current employer of your plans to resign from your present position. This can bring unforeseen ramifications and result in you losing your job sooner than expected.

  13. Do not ask someone you are too close with. To maintain objectivity and be taken seriously, refrain from including someone you are too close with. For example, if your current position is at a family business and your father happens to be the company owner, consider asking a coworker instead.

  14. Do not assume that someone will say yes. Just because you have used someone as a reference before, you should not presume that they will be willing to do it again. Remember to ask them before including them on your list.

  15. Don’t forget to thank your references. Remember to thank your colleagues for taking time out of their busy schedules to help you out in the hiring processes.

Professional References List Template

When presenting your professional reference list to a potential employer, you want to make sure the information you are including is well organized. This will speak volumes about the work you will be bringing into the company.

Hiring managers will want to know that you are detail-oriented, to help you achieve this, here is a template of what a reference list should look like:

References for [Your Name]

[Your Name]
[Your Address]
[Your Phone Number]
[Your Email Address]

References

[Reference #1 Full Name]
[Title]
[Company Name]
[Company Address]
[Reference Number]
[Reference Email]

A brief description of your professional relationship

[Reference #2 Full Name]
[Title]
[Company Name]
[Company Address]
[Reference Number]
[Reference Email]

A brief description of your professional relationship

[Reference #3 Full Name]
[Title]
[Company Name]
[Company Address]
[Reference Number]
[Reference Email]

A brief description of your professional relationship

Professional References List Example

Now let’s fill in the blanks to format a perfect list of professional references:

Reference List Sample

References for Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson
123 Happy St., Boston, MA 02101
(555)-555-5555
bill.johnson@mail.com

References

Sandra Jackson
Director of Sales
Cloudy Day Corp.
555 Easton Blvd., Boston, MA 0210
(444)-444-4444
sandra.jackson@mail.com

Sandra was my direct supervisor from June 2017 to August 2019 when I was a sales representative at Cloudy Day Corp.

Jen Terpeka
Sales Representative
123 Solutions
10 West Ln., Boston, MA 0210
(333)-333-3333
j.terpeka@123solutions.com

Jen is a sales representative I collaborate with often in my current role at 123 Solutions

Tim Oberlin
Professor of Business Administration
University of Maine
123 Maine St., Portland, ME 04019
(222)-222-2222
tim.oberlin@ume.com

Tim was my professor for two classes in business administration and was my advisor throughout my degree program

Tips for Writing a Professional Reference List

Creating a list of professional references is an important step when searching for a new job. Remember to include people who will have your back and speak highly of you to a potential employer. This will become an incredible resource that will help you land your next role.

Another helpful tip when searching for the perfect reference is to try to find people that are in some way connected to the job you are applying to. This will help emphasize your skills within that field and bring you closer to landing the job.

When sending an application to a company, remember to wait for the hiring manager to request a copy of your reference list. Sending one out without being asked can actually work against you. Including your references in your resume can seem archaic. Hiring managers might assume you have been on the market for a while and might pass you on.

Remember to always follow up with your references. Keeping them in the loop can go a long way. After all, you never know what the future holds; you might need them to help you out again.

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Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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