Guide to Getting the Best References for Your Next Job Application

How many times have you bought something online without checking the reviews? I bet it’s not many. If you’re going to be parting with your money you want to have a frame of reference – something that lets you know the quality of what you’re buying. You want something to reduce the risk of buying something that you will regret.

Job references are exactly the same.

Hiring Managers don’t want to hire someone who looks great on paper but has a bad habit of not coming into work on time. Just like a review on eBay or Amazon, a personal or professional reference can give them a more well-rounded idea of the person they want to hire.

When you are providing names of people to give you a reference, it’s important you choose wisely. Think of them as your job search wingmen and wingwomen – they’re there to back up your applications and help you get the job.

Dramatically Increase Your Chances by Asking the Right Person

Your reference list is a tool just like your cover letter, skills section, or your ability to answer tough questions. Like all tools, there are some that are great for certain jobs and some that aren’t.

Picking the right referee can go a long way towards getting you the job you want. A good reference can help, for instance, if you are looking for a job without any experience. They can help convince employers that you have the skills they’re looking for, like punctuality, reliability and the ability to be part of a team. When choosing someone to be your reference think carefully about who will be the best for your particular situation.

Reference Checklist

  1. How do you know them? Personal and professional contacts both have a place in reference lists (see below) but one may be more appropriate for this job. Think about how their relationship with you can help your chances with the Hiring Manager. Personal references (someone who knows you from sport, volunteering, community groups, school) can be helpful if the new job is a big change from your last one.
  2. Have they worked with you recently? Try and provide a recent reference where possible. Hiring Managers will generally want to hear from someone at your most recent place of employment. If you haven’t had a job before someone from your school or a course or from a community group you’re active in will do.
  3. Are they close to you? Try and choose people who know you and your work style well. Having your company’s CEO as your reference may look impressive but the effect won’t last if the CEO can’t make any comments about your ability. Instead choose your direct supervisor (or theirs if you’re trying to escape a strained relationship with your boss). You can also pick co-workers but it’s usually a better idea to pick someone more senior than you.
  4. Is this person a good match for the job? You will want to pick someone who can properly assess your abilities and skills in terms of the new job. 
  5. Will they be positive? Since references are all about impressing the Hiring Manager, you want to make sure your referee will say the right things. If there are obvious issues between you and your boss for instance that you think could affect your chances, pick someone more appropriate.

Choosing a Personal or Professional Contact

A professional contact is exactly what it sounds like. Someone who knows you in a professional capacity. That means anybody from co-workers, to supervisors, company executives, and even clients. They will be able to tell a Hiring Manager about your work style and ability.

A personal contact should be someone that you’ve known for several years. They could be from any part of your life and will tell a Hiring Manager about your character. They could even tell them about things you have done such as community leadership or service. You can pick whomever you want for a personal contact but never include family members.

How to Ask Someone to Be Your Reference

If you are applying for a job, there is a high chance that you will be required to give a list of references to the Hiring Manager (3 is standard). Once you have worked out a shortlist of people you think will make good references, you need to make sure they are happy to help you.

Approach Someone

The way you ask someone to be your reference will depend on how you know them. You might be able to just casually ask a friendly co-worker or personal contact, or send them a quick email. Speaking to someone in person is always preferable because it gives you a chance to explain more about the context and the opportunity you’re pursuing. It also shows them that you value them by going out of your way to ask for their support. Not to mention, they may know someone or have insights that could prove helpful with this opportunity or another (a great networking moment!) If you can’t speak to them then you will need to ask them to be your reference in writing. Professional contacts like supervisors or ex-bosses will usually require a more formal approach. Never put someone down without getting their permission.

When requesting someone to be your reference, include that you are looking for a new job and that you would appreciate being able to include their details as a reference. Make sure to say that you will let them know who may reach out to them and when so they can be prepared.

At this point, it’s also be a good idea to include your updated resume and the job ad you’re applying to so that they will have all the information they might need to support you. Make sure to also let them know you’re happy to provide any other information that would be helpful.

Whoever you ask, make sure you give them an opportunity to say no. Phrasing your request like “would you be comfortable providing a reference for me?” allows people to decline without feeling pressured.

Dealing with their Response

Whatever your chosen referee says, make sure you thank them.

Sometimes people don’t like giving references for legal reasons or they don’t want to feel like they were responsible if you didn’t get the job. So, even if they decline, make sure you thank them for their time and consideration politely. Just because they didn’t give a reference now doesn’t mean they might not later. You also never know when they could be useful down the line for networking, or even mentoring.

If they said yes, that’s great! Thank them and say you will be in touch to let them know when they should expect a call.

Give Them a Heads Up

If you’re still employed and want to use your current boss or supervisor as a reference, you have to let them know beforehand. The last thing you want is a Hiring Manager to be the one to tell your current Employer that you’re looking for a new job. Not only will it make you look unprofessional, it also stops your reference from being able to give their best possible assessment of you.

First, make sure you’ve asked them for permission. Never assume or include someone as a reference who hasn’t agreed to it.

Once you know someone is going to make contact with them, give them a heads up so they know to expect a call.  These days most people are suspicious of unknown callers and potential spammers. Telling your contact to expect a call might be the difference between a great reference and them sending your Hiring Manager’s call to the phone bank. 

Include as much detail as you can so they know what job it’s for and who might be calling. Your reference will be able to tailor their answers much better and provide a much stronger reference to support your application.

Contacts who have changed jobs, moved or retired

If you’re applying for a job abroad or you know that your reference has moved on from their last position it can be worthwhile requesting a letter of recommendation. Most companies will be reluctant to contact people who are overseas so having a letter of recommendation (a formal written reference in lieu of a phone call) is valuable to have on hand.

Since these letters take a bit of time to write, it’s worthwhile giving your contact as much notice as you can. It’s also a good idea to let the employer know that you have a letter of recommendation from your reference in addition to their contact details. That way the employer can still contact them if they wish.

Compiling Your Reference List

Make sure you provide your employer with enough information about your reference list

You’ve done all the hard work to secure your references. Now you need to put all their details into a single document so that they will be ready to go when an employer asks for them. It’s a good idea to lay out your list in the same style as your cover letter and resume.

You will want to make sure to include the following details for each of your references:

  • First and Last Name
  • Position/ Job Title
  • Organisation/ Company Name
  • Phone Number
  • Email Address

Make sure you’ve confirmed with your contact that you have their most current contact details since the Hiring Manager won’t be able reach them otherwise. Again, don’t assume their phone number or email address is the same as these details do change. 

It’s also a good idea to include a brief sentence about how you know your reference or your relationship with them (eg. Former Supervisor at XYZ Company). That just makes it easier for the Hiring Manager to see how they know you and what type of reference they will likely be providing.

Do you need to send an employer your reference list?

Everyone knows about the ending line to so many resumes: “References available upon request.” 

You know it and so do employers. They know they can request a reference from you at any time, so don’t bother including that line. It just takes up valuable real estate on your resume and makes for a soft finish when you want to leave a strong impression.

It’s a good idea however to have your reference list ready to go before you apply however. That way if the job description does say to include references you will be ready to go. Similarly, if an employer likes your application so far and wants to see your reference list then you will be able to provide it quickly (often the key to impressing a Hiring Manager and making their job easy).

And remember: don’t give away your references’ personal information unless you need to.

Follow Up

While some people will be happy to speak to the Hiring Manager and not hear about it again most people will like to know the outcome of your job search. They were involved in the process and it can feel like they helped you get over the line.

Whatever the outcome, make sure you re-thank them for helping you. If you got the job, they’ll appreciate that they were part of your success!

Don’t Burn Your Bridges

If you haven’t worked it out by now, professional networks and good references are valuable assets when searching for a job. While it might feel good to tell everyone in your job how you really feel when you leave it’s often better to just be polite and leave quietly. You never know who you will need to ask for help later and if their reference will be needed to help you get your dream job down the line.


  • Ask someone you trust, who can vouch for your abilities, and is willing to help.
  • Talk to them in person if you can or send an email outlining what you need from them.
  • Remind them of your achievements and career path so far – provide a copy of your latest resume can help.
  • Let them know when you have given a Hiring Manager their details and to expect a call.
  • Thank them afterwards and let them know how it went.

Picking the Right Reference 

Like any aspect of your application, your reference list should be tailored for each job. That means that you might need to change your reference list from application to application. You’ll also need to update it when you get a new job.

It might sound like a lot of work but this tailoring is a crucial part of getting a job. Everything in your application should be working to impress the Hiring Manager. It’s the difference between quelling any concerns or queries that a they might have and having them doubt you and go with somebody else.

Your Turn…

What questions/ concerns do you have about asking for or providing references? 

Any tips we haven’t included that you want to share with the community? 


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