A great reference can make the difference in a hiring decision, but a poor one can cost you a job. When a potential employer asks you for references, how do you present them and feel confident that your contacts are helping you get the job?


What Do Employers Ask?

Before you can decide who would make a good reference, you need to know what employers ask. There are usually questions about your relationship with the reference. How long did you work together? Where did you work? Then, they will ask more detailed questions about your work ethic, your attitude, or any number of traits. They might ask leaded questions starting with a phrase like, “Would you say…” or they may be open ended. Your references should be prepared to speak to your work or academic history, particularly the part that overlaps with them, and how you performed in that role.

Who to Use

The first step is to line up your references, and make sure you do this before you need them. Don’t wait until an employer asks, or you may have trouble finding people’s contact information. Start by thinking about who has worked with you or known you for a long time.

Great choices for references can include faculty from your college, previous employers, coworkers from past jobs, coaches, and even support staff from your university if they know you well. Most employers ask for 3-4 references, so find 4-5 people you feel confident asking to be safe. It is important that the person you choose remembers enough about you to give a good reference, so do not choose someone you haven’t spoken to in many years, and don’t choose friends or family. References need to be professional.

You need to start contacting these people as early in your job-hunt as possible to give them time to speak with you before an employer contacts them. Don’t ever use someone as a reference without asking him or her first. While you may have had a great relationship with your former boss, some companies do not allow their employees to give references for legal reasons. You don’t want a future employer calling your reference and finding them unable to talk about you. Also, someone who is unprepared to speak about you may not remember all your wonderful qualities on the spot, so do yourself a favor and ask your references first.

How to Ask

How you ask someone to be a reference will depend upon your relationship with the person, but when you do ask, be polite and be specific. To start the conversation, you may want to casually remind your reference of why you want to use them.

Dr. Green, I was wondering if I could use you for a reference, because you learned a lot about me when you were my thesis advisor, and I feel that you can talk about my work ethic and abilities.

John, I want to use you for a reference, because I worked for you for three years, and I think you can speak for my character and dedication.

You don’t have to give any long speeches about why this person should help you, but if you give some sort of concrete detail about your relationship, your reference will not only be more willing to help, but you’ve already highlighted part of what you want him or her to say.

Don’t try to script what your reference should tell employers, because you want him or her to be authentic, but it doesn’t hurt to supply this person with facts. You should give your reference a copy of your resume and talk about what types of jobs you are seeking and why you are a good fit for them, since this is the sort of information that employers want.

After providing references to an employer, let your references know who might be contacting them, so that they can be prepared. This also gives your references another chance to ask any questions they may have.

Tip: If any references seem hesitant to help you for any reason, thank them for their time and move on to someone else. You don’t want a reference that you had to convince to talk about you, because employers will pick up on his or her lack of enthusiasm.

How to Present References

Once you have your references, you need to create a list to give to employers. Just like your resume, it should have your contact information at the top. After that, it should list your references and their contact information.

List each reference’s name, position, employer, relationship to you, and the contact information she gave you. This should include address, phone number, and email address. Do this for each reference, and you’re done. It’s that simple!

Tip: It is important that you know your reference’s contact preferences, such as whether to contact her at work or home.

More Tips

  • Make sure after your references have been contacted that you thank them in writing with a note or a nice email. This will go a long way in using them again.
  • If your reference gave you an excellent review, stay in touch, even when you aren’t looking for a job. He or she obviously thinks highly of you and won’t mind staying in contact. Plus, you won’t have to remind them what you’ve been doing next time you need a reference.
  • Don’t include references on your resume, and there is no reason to put “References furnished upon request,” on your resume, as it is assumed.
  • Have your printed reference sheet ready in case the employer asks for it at the interview.
  • If an employer asks for you send him references via email, paste them in the body of the email. Do not attach them unless asked otherwise, because many people do not open email attachments.
  • Always double-check the spelling of names of references.
  • As your career progresses, you may find contacts within your industry that will serve as better references than generic ones from a part-time job you held years ago. Always make maintaining professional relationships a priority, since you never know who might be able to help you in the future. The right reference from the right person can make all the difference in landing a dream job.
Peggy Carouthers

Author: Peggy Carouthers

In a previous life Peggy worked as a human resources and hiring manager for a major national retail chain. Her expertise is in job hunting, hiring, and HR. These days Peggy works as a writer, crafting content for a range of publications.
Peggy Carouthers