References: The Keys to Choosing and Using the Best Job References in Your Job Search

By Jacob Share

We’re often so busy polishing resumes and cover letters, researching companies, and preparing for interviews, that we neglect a very important part of the job search process—lining up people to be references.

Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “job references don’t really matter—most employers aren’t going to bother conducting a detailed background search on me.” You’re wrong.

In an April 2016 study, The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that references are a top three selection technique used to assess candidates in three out of four types of hires:

  1. Executives (52%)
  2. Middle Management (23%)
  3. Non-management (57%)
  4. Non-management (hourly) (also 57%)

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Remember, an employer is preparing to make a big investment in hiring you, and wants to be sure you are who you say you are. Having the right job references can be the deciding factor in your getting the job offer. Conversely, having one bad (or lukewarm) reference could cost you the job.

7 Keys to Using Job References the Right Way

  1. Only use generic “letters of recommendation” as a last resort

Employers don’t want to read letters written in the past to “whom it may concern” and you shouldn’t want to use them. Old, untargeted, barely relevant information won’t help many people make decisions about who you are now and are aiming to be in the future.

Employers want to contact a select group of people who can speak about your strengths and weaknesses (but mainly your strengths).

However, if you’re afraid you’ll lose contact with a potentially great reference—such as a favorite professor at a foreign university—it’s best to get a signed, glowing letter of recommendation than nothing at all.

  1. Think strategically about reference choices

The best job references are people who:

  • Have high credibility in the eyes of employers
  • Have great things to say about you
  • Are available at the time you’d need them to be references

 Overall, you ideally want around three to five job references lined up—people who can speak highly of your accomplishments, work ethic, skills, education, performance, etc.

For experienced job seekers, most references should come from previous supervisors and co-workers whom you worked closely with in the past, though you may also choose to list an educational (mentor) or personal (character) reference.

College students and recent grads have a little more flexibility, but ideally you should have several references from internships or volunteer work in addition to professors and personal references. Avoid listing family members; clergy or friends are okay for personal references. Former coaches, vendors, customers, and business acquaintances are also acceptable.

  1. Build your references list as you go

References belong in a separate section that match the look and feel of your resume—it can be titled “References” or “Reference List.” Each reference listing should have all relevant contact information, as preferred by the reference themselves (they are doing you a favor, after all), including available hours where relevant (such as for calls). Make sure their relationship to you is noted, with dates/time span of the relationship listed.

Get started by choosing a references list template and filling in three-to-five names of people to target as job references.

  1. Get permission to use someone as a reference

Next, reach out to everyone in your list.

Before you even think of listing someone as a reference, ask whether the person would be comfortable serving as a reference for you. Talk to them about the kinds of jobs you’re looking for and discuss which questions employers may ask them (see sample questions below).

Most people will be flattered—or at least willing to serve as a reference—but you still need to ask to be sure. Be prepared for a few people to decline your request, for whatever reason, and accept their decision gracefully.

If you can ask in person, that’s best but not always feasible. Asking over the phone is usually your best bet, because if you get through, you can gauge the person’s tone over the phone as a sign of how they’d handle a call from an employer about you.

There are circumstances where email or even social media access would be enough, such as if the reference is abroad and clarifies that they can only be reached that way, but it may also deter an employer who’d rather get a quicker response over the phone from someone else on the list.

As you reach out to the names on your list and they agree to help, complete their listing in your references list template with the information they provide, double-checking as you go. If the reference finds it useful, give them a copy of your resume.

  1. Stay in touch with your job references

“Out of sight, out of mind,” goes the saying.

Update your references whenever an employer has shown interest in calling them, and if you don’t think they’ll mind, ask them to proactively contact you if they do get called. At least follow up with them later if an employer confirms having called them.

  1. Be sure to thank your job references for their help

Don’t forget to thank your references up front and again once your current job search is complete. Some companies never contact any references, some only check the first one or two, and some check all. Regardless, these people were willing to help you, and thanking them is simply a common courtesy.

  1. Don’t mention references on your resume

A classic recruiter pet peeve is seeing the dreaded “References available upon request” at the bottom of a resume, or worse, actually including them on the resume!

Just be sure to keep your list of job references with you when interviewing so that you can be prepared to present them when the employer asks. If you have a job-search portfolio, keep the list in your portfolio.

Questions a potential employer might ask one of your references:

  • Can you please describe how you know the candidate? And for how long?
  • How would you rate the candidate’s skills in . . . ?
  • Can you describe the candidate’s communications abilities?
  • How well does the candidate work under pressure?
  • Can you describe the candidate’s attitude toward work?
  • How well does the candidate take constructive criticism?
  • How well does the candidate interact with co-workers?
  • Is the candidate a team player?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s honesty and integrity?
  • Can you describe the candidate’s key strengths and weaknesses?
  • How receptive is the candidate to new ideas and procedures?
  • Given a description of the position the candidate is applying for, do you think the candidate is a good match?
  • If you were in a position to (re)hire this candidate for a similar position, would you do so?
  • Can you describe the candidate’s leadership, managerial, or supervisory skills?
  • Do you have any additional information or comments that might help us make a better decision about this candidate?

Looking for the old version of this article? Check it out here.


About the Author

Jacob Share

Jacob Share is a job search expert and the founder of the award-winning JobMob.

With over 12 million visitors since 2007, JobMob is one of the most popular job search blogs online, containing straight-talking advice and humor based on Jacob’s real-world experiences of finding jobs in the U.S., Canada, France, and Israel. Become a free JobMob Insider to gain access to exclusive job search resources that have been downloaded thousands of times.