What you should know about job references

How to get and use references for employment

Employment references can be the difference between securing a new job or spending a few more weeks searching. Do you know how to choose and list your references?

References are designed to help employers learn more about an applicant’s abilities and clarify any inconsistencies that might have arisen during the interview process. They can also be used to make an educated guess about what kind of employee the person would be.

The amount of valuable information that can be learned from a reference depends on a number of factors. One could be the relationship the applicant has with the person they have asked. A roommate’s or friend’s opinion will always be less useful than that of a past employer, for example.

In this short guide, you will find the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about listing references. We asked Ilil Ginsberg, Senior Recruiter and Career & Branding Expert, for her expert insight to give you the best possible start to your new job.

Who to ask for a job reference

Ideally, your reference will be from a recent job and written by someone you have a good working relationship with. Most potential employers require three different references. 

In decreasing value from the top, here are some of the people you should think about asking for a professional reference:

  • supervisors or managers, from most to least recent positions
  • work-relevant personnel, such as colleagues, clients and suppliers
  • educators, like teachers and coaches
  • friends, roommates and friends of the family

You should aim for at least one reference from a more authoritative source, ideally a professional one. In any case, your trio of references should be made up of a mix of the above people. They should paint a picture of what you can offer to a potential employer without overselling your abilities or, worse, fabricating parts of your history.

alt"clipboard-list" How should I ask for a reference?

Asking for a reference is often the easy part. Simply ask your chosen person if they are happy to give you a reference.

The big mistake that some people make at this stage is providing the contact details for a reference without getting permission first. Excluding the obvious annoyance that this may cause, some of your previous employers may only be able to give a basic reference or none at all. You do not want to ace the interview only to discover that your references have fallen through.

alt"clipboard-list" What is included in a reference?

The person you ask for a reference may give you a short, simple reference or a more detailed one. Simple references can be as basic as the dates you worked for a given company. Detailed references can include in-depth information like your skills and personality, as well as any lengthy absences or the outcome of disciplinary procedures. Ginsberg explains that your target employer will also ask your references follow-up questions.

“The whole point of the reference is to understand what sort of employee you are. (Your prospective employer) will ask about your performance and your reference will tell them.”

The length of a reference will depend on the type of questions a new employer has asked and your reference’s interest in supporting you.

alt"clipboard-list" Should I include my references on my resume?

When considering how to when and list references, Ginsberg adds that it is important not to over-complicate your resume with information from references.

I would not waste any space on your resume, which should be limited to one page. It is obvious to the interviewer that, should you proceed to a certain stage, you will be requested to provide references.” 

When asked about when it is appropriate for a potential new employer to ask for a reference, Ginsberg emphasizes that you should wait until you get an offer.

What if I do not have a current reference?

There are a couple of reasons why you may not have a reference. The most obvious reason would be if you have limited or no working experience. In this case, educational references are considered the most authoritative references to list.

The second issue getting references occurs when employers refuse to give out references. This happens when your working relationship ended on bad terms. In this case, you can ask someone other than your manager at your old company if they are willing to help. Begin with other managers you may have worked with or try asking a HR representative for support. It may be that a basic reference proving the points on your resume is enough to appease your new employer.

While emphasizing that references from direct managers are best, Ginsberg emphasizes that any reference from your previous company is better than no reference at all.

“If you really cannot give a direct manager as a  reference, go ahead and give a colleague who can attest to your character and professionalism.”

It is important to note that not including your hiring manager in your references can be a red flag to potential employers, especially if they ask for this kind of reference specifically. Should you not include your hiring manager as a reference, be careful not to complain or speak poorly about your previous company, manager or employees during your interview, as this could draw suspicion.

To make up for a missing direct manager reference, you can also use older professional references from a previous company or personal ones to support your application.

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Can LinkedIn help?

LinkedIn has a function for contacts to recommend other people in their network, whether they have worked together or not. However, this is only possible with contacts already on your contacts list.

These kinds of recommendations are not always as strong from a professional perspective, but they do show a trust in your abilities, which always looks good to employers. Ask your network for recommendations, but do not expect them to have a lot of legitimacy in the hiring process.

Dos and don’ts

  • Do make sure you communicate with your references.
  • Do wait until you are requested to send references.
  • Do use a separate sheet of paper to list references.
  • Don’t hand out your references in an interview.
  • Don’t fabricate references or list someone without their permission.
  • Don’t forget to recycle your references.

alt"light-bulb-1" This saves both you and your potential references time and energy.