The Job Seeker’s Guide to Professional References

Nov 30, 2023

Once your resume looks pristine and you’ve nailed the interview, it might be time for someone else to speak about your work experience. As you go through the hiring process, a recruiter may ask for a list of professional references. This is a common occurrence that helps the recruiter determine if you are the right fit for the position. This guide will walk through the basics of professional references so you’ll be ready for your next reference request.


What is a professional reference?

A professional reference is someone who can give firsthand accounts about your skills, qualifications, and work ethic. Common references include past supervisors, professors, mentors, or colleagues. Ultimately, a professional reference is anyone who can positively attest to your past work performance.


Why do employers ask for professional references?

There are several reasons why an employer may ask you to provide a professional reference. First, a reference can confirm the accuracy of your past employment and educational background. They can also give insight into essential soft skills such as problem-solving and the ability to work on a team. A reference can offer a different perspective that isn’t evident from your application materials. This information provides the employer with a comprehensive view of your candidacy.


How to choose a professional reference

Identify people you know from previous workplaces, schools, or volunteer experiences. Prioritize those who have directly supervised you in a setting like the role you are applying for. Your reference should have specific examples of your work experience that they can share. Ideally, your reference should be from a recent job or project, so they will have a clear memory of your performance. While these suggestions will result in stronger references, anyone who you have worked with can still be an option.

The most important trait of a good reference is the ability to give a positive testimonial. If you had a less favorable relationship with a past manager, it’s best to avoid asking them to be a reference. An employer is looking for a holistic evaluation of you, so you’ll want to trust the references you choose. Debating on whether someone would be a good fit? If you’re not sure, start thinking of other options.


How to ask for a professional reference

Now that you have identified quality references, the next step is to reach out and ask. Contact your prospective reference by email or using the LinkedIn messaging feature. If you have a closer relationship with them, sending a text message may also be appropriate. Begin your message by asking them if they are comfortable with serving as your professional reference. Inform them of the position and company you are interviewing for and explain why you believe they would be a good reference. It’s also a good idea to include the job description and a copy of your resume so they can tailor their responses. Don’t forget to thank them for their time and support after the evaluation is completed. Here is a template you can use when requesting a professional reference:

Hi [Reference’s Name],
I am writing to you today to ask if you would be willing to serve as a professional reference for me. I am currently applying for [position title] at [company name]. Because you were my [previous working relationship] at [previous company name], I believe that your positive assessment of my skills would complement my application.

I have attached my resume and the job description for your reference. I would also be happy to provide you with any additional information you may need.

Thank you for considering my request. I truly appreciate your time and support.

[Your Name]

Remember that your potential reference may be too busy to accept the request. If this happens, consider other colleagues who can provide a positive recommendation.


How to manage professional references

Throughout your career, it is important to stay in touch with former colleagues when you are asked to provide a reference. One of the best ways to do this is to connect with them on LinkedIn. Interact with their posts and even send them a message every once in a while to maintain rapport. The stronger the connection with you, the more likely a colleague will accept the reference role and give a glowing review. If you are struggling to identify quality references, continue building your network. Try attending professional or volunteer opportunities, reconnecting with peers, or being a resource to others seeking references.

Most employers tend to ask for 3 references, so keep a list of people you deem fit for the request. When you receive a reference request, a solid list will help you deliver timely responses to the employer. It’s a good idea to have more than 3 references, if possible, in case someone declines your request.


By following this guide, you can effectively enhance your job search and secure new opportunities. After the reference check, you are one step closer to landing the job!

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