How to Pick the Right Job References to Advance Your Career

In the final stretch to landing a new job? Read these job reference tips to learn how to choose people from your network are invested in your success. Learn about the job reference characteristics that impress the hiring manager at your target company and how your references can help you shine a light on what makes you the ideal candidate for the job.

Don’t Underestimate The Importance Of Professional References

Because they are typically requested either after the offer or when you know you are a finalist for the position, candidates can make the mistake of believing the job is already in the bag. That’s not always the case. A bad or unenthusiastic reference can knock you out of the running. Be sure you choose the right people and know what the employer will seek. References are witnesses who can back up your claims. They can verify your strengths, your best qualities and your experience. Choose references who can speak to your suitability, qualifications and fit for your target job.

Know What Your Reference Can Say

If your reference is someone in your professional network you never reported to, they can probably speak freely. If you’re using a former manager as a reference, they might be limited by company policies. Some companies only allow supervisors to confirm start and end dates or insist all requests go through HR.

Investigate ahead of time to avoid being blindsided, especially if you were counting on a good reference from your manager. Provide their name to the hiring manager but warn them about the company’s policies. Don’t count this as one of your references if they are not permitted to speak about your performance or accomplishments. If you are asked to provide three references, give them three plus the manager if they are not allowed to provide a detailed reference.

Choose The Right References

Employers don’t care how mindful you are when choosing your fantasy football team or how nicely you take care of your yard – don’t include friends and neighbors in your reference list unless you have worked with them in the past. Employers want to know about job performance, whether you were a positive influence on the organization and if the reference recommends hiring you. That’s why you need references who know your work.

The Best References Include:

  • Managers or supervisors
  • Coworkers you worked with directly
  • Colleagues from other departments
  • People in your professional network
  • Clients or vendors
  • Mentors
  • Direct reports
  • People you served on committees or boards with

If you are early in your career or making a career change, you can include college professors, advisors, or individuals from volunteer efforts.

How To Ask For A Reference

Your approach can be essential to getting a positive, enthusiastic reference. Ask politely, but never pressure; it won’t help. Tell them what you need and what they should expect. Will the employer be calling, or do you need them to write a letter of reference?

Prepare Your References

Communicate with your references to let them know you are in the job market, so they know to expect a call or email from the hiring manager. Tell your references about the job you’re hoping to land and what you would like to them to highlight. Of course, you don’t want to tell them what to say, but you can steer them in the right direction. For example, “This job would have me working with clients in Asia-Pacific. Since we worked together on several international projects in that part of the world, I thought you would be the ideal person to speak about my relevant experience.”

Discuss Your Target Job

Tell your references about the job. You can even provide them with a copy of the job description or post. Share why you’re interested in the position and why it’s a good fit for you. If It’s been a while since you worked together, remind them of any skills and experience you wish them to emphasize. If the interviewer seemed particularly interested in any specific aspect of your qualifications or history, let your references know so they are prepared to answer thoughtfully.

Keep Your Reference List Updated

Your career is dynamic. Your reference list should change over the years as well. If you are now mid-career, you probably don’t need to retain entry-level references on your list unless they are part of your active network and can speak about your current work. For the most part, employers will ask for about three references, but you should have more than just three to draw from. Aim for about ten, and you can rotate as needed so you’re not constantly calling upon the same people.

Nurture Your Relationships

Your references shouldn’t only hear from you every three years when you are in the market for a new job. Stay in touch on an ongoing basis – not just when you need them. Keep up with their careers and update them on yours. Share relevant articles and job or candidate leads that may be of interest to them. If they are local, go out for coffee every now and then.

Thank Your References

If someone provides a reference to you, be sure to show your appreciation. A handwritten note or card is usually welcome. You can also send a thoughtful email, phone them or meet up in person. If you get the job, get in touch in a few months and let them know how the new position is going. It’s all part of genuine gratitude and keeping your professional network healthy.

What Employers Are Looking For From Your References

You may have an idea of what the hiring manager will want to learn from speaking to your references, but here are a few questions they typically will ask. The person checking your references will usually begin by confirming factual information such as your job title, employment dates, attendance and whether you would be eligible for rehire.

Then they will dig a little deeper, asking about:

  • Why you left the company.
  • Your job responsibilities.
  • Whether you got along with your coworkers.
  • Your strengths and weaknesses.
  • How well you managed your team, if relevant.
  • How you handled stress or conflict.
  • If they believed they would be a good fit for the proposed position.

Dos and Don’ts of Employment References


  • Prepare a good mix of references including managers, colleagues, and direct reports.
  • Get in touch with them before an employer reaches out.
  • Be certain they remember you.
  • Make sure they will say good things about your work.
  • Be honest with them about your goals.
  • Line up more references than you need


  • Ask family members to be your reference.
  • Put your references on your resume.
  • Use someone as a reference without asking.
  • Ask someone who doesn’t know you well.

What If You’re Currently Employed?

If the hiring manager wants to check references at your current employer and you don’t want to tip your hand about leaving the company, you can ask that they wait on that specific reference until you accept their job offer. If you have a trusted colleague at your current employer, perhaps they can speak on your behalf.

What If A Manager Won’t Provide A Reference

If you didn’t get along with a manager or the company has a policy of only confirming basic information like job titles and employment dates, you’ll need a backup plan. Let the prospective employer know about the manager or company’s position on references and have backup references available.

How To Avoid A Bad Reference

Choose references who are happy to help and excited about your career prospects. Put some time into building your list and performing due diligence on the quality of reference you can expect. Have a conversation before you add them to your list to be sure they have the same recollection and positive attitude toward your professional relationship.

Check Your References

If you really want to know what your references will say about you, perform a trial run by asking a friend to check references. You shouldn’t need to do this with a trusted member of your professional network, but if you have doubts about a former manager, it might be worth finding out what they have to say so you can do damage control.

Consider Written References

Not all employers are interested in letters of reference, but it can give you more control over what the reference will look like and avoid being surprised by negativity. You can also request that they endorse you on LinkedIn. Be sure to reciprocate.

How Can You Be A Good Reference?

The flip side of getting a good reference is giving one. Here’s what you should do. Find out what your company policies say about what you’re allowed to share. If there is no specific policy, talk to the person you will be providing a reference for about their goals, expectations and timeline. Share your positive thoughts about the candidate. Talk about their performance, attitude and how they were perceived within the organization. Be sure that your feedback is relevant to the position and covers what the candidate wants to emphasize. If you have any reservations, turn down the request. You might feel bad in the moment, but if you can’t recommend them enthusiastically, it will show through even if you try to be positive.

Can Your Staffing Agency Be A Reference?

Not exactly, but once you and your recruiter get to know each other, they can talk you up to the employer, emphasizing your strengths and experience. Job headhunters know the employer well, so they can speak honestly regarding your qualifications for the job and fit for the organization.

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