Get the Job You Want! – How to Choose the Right References for Your Job Search

Anytime you search for a job, there is a good chance that you will have to provide references to the hiring manager.

Potential employers want to talk to people who know you, and who can provide insight into your abilities and strengths.

Choosing the right references for your job search is about more than just providing a list of names to a potential employer.  If things get serious, the hiring manager is likely to follow up.

Do you know what your references will say about you?

Here’s How to Go About Choosing the Right References in Your Job Search


Which People Make Good Job References?

Your first step is to think about which people in your network would make good job references.

As you consider potential references, ask yourself the following questions about each person:

  • Do you feel like the person wants to see you succeed?
  • How well does the person know your accomplishments?
  • Does the person know your character?
  • Do you trust the person to offer an accurate assessment of your professional performance?
  • Can the person answer tough questions?
  • Is he or she likely to answer in more than monosyllables?
  • Would you feel comfortable as a reference for this person?

The answers to the questions above can help you determine which of those in your professional network are likely to be good references.

Your references should have a pretty good idea of what you have accomplished, how you work, and your general character.  At the same time, though, you want to ask someone with whom you are on good terms.

My husband doesn’t include one of his supervisors as a reference because, even though this supervisor has seen his success and accomplishments, he’s somewhat vindictive and they didn’t get along.  My husband doesn’t trust him to help him succeed.

It also helps if you would be willing to serve as a reference for the person you are asking.

Indeed, you might be asked to provide a reference.  If this is the case, you want to be able to return the favor done for you.  Don’t ask something from someone that you wouldn’t be willing to help in turn.

Also, don’t take it personally if someone turns you down.  That person may not feel adequate for the job, or he or she might have too much going on at the moment to provide a solid reference.

Depending on the job you apply for, different types of references might needed.

Most employers will want professional references from people who have seen you in action during your career.  Consider people you have worked with in different capacities.  You want to include a supervisor/manager or two, and it’s usually a good idea to include a colleague as well.  In some cases, it might even be appropriate to use a subordinate or former subordinate as a reference.

Carefully think through this decision, though. In many cases, colleagues and supervisors are better choices.

What gets difficult, of course, is when you are looking for references as you apply for a new job in secret.

You can’t exactly turn to people you currently work with for references if you are keeping your job search under wraps.  Instead, you will have to cast about in your wider career network.  Consider including a mentor, someone you worked with at a past company, or someone who knows your character well, and can speak to your abilities.

Most of the time, it’s not a good idea to include relatives as references.  Unless you are undergoing a thorough background check and relatives’ names are requested, try to keep them off the list.

Asking for References

These days, there are a number of ways that companies deal with references.

Some companies just ask you to provide names, and they make phone calls.  Others ask for email addresses and then contact your references for an electronic letter.  Finally, there are still some jobs that require that you send in letters of reference with your application.

You will need to consider what is a likely scenario, and who is likely to respond.  Do you trust that your references will answer an emailed request?  If not, consider someone who is more reliable.

You do need to ask your references to fulfill that role for you.

It’s bad form to simply list someone as a reference without asking first.  When asking someone to serve as a reference on your behalf, talk about the job you are applying for.  You can even bring a copy of the job description to the conversation.  You want your references to have adequate warning about what’s coming.  Your references will be much better able to answer questions and provide insights that fit the job description if they are well prepared.

Brief your references on how the potential employer is likely to contact them.

If they will be sending out emails, warn your references so that they are on the watch for the email.  If you are applying for several different positions, apprise your references of that situation.  That way they can prepare a template that can be adjusted according to who’s doing the asking.  In some cases, if your reference is willing, but unaware of some of your specific accomplishments, you might have to provide background information.  Be prepared with your resume or vitals so that you can share it with your potential references.

You can also provide some highlights of your accomplishments, as well as information about some of your outside-work activities, such as volunteering, so that your references have a vision of you as a well-rounded person.

My husband has a few go-to people that serve as references, and they have template letters available.  It only takes a few minutes to update the information and tweak the letters so that they are prepared.  And he always warns them if a phone call might be on the way instead.

Make sure that you cultivate professional relationships throughout your career.

You want to keep in contact with a few key people that you can use for references, no matter what.  My dad has always kept up his relationship with his mentor and supervisor from an early job.  They keep in contact, and when he needs a reference, this man is always available — and he always knows what recent activities my dad has been involved with.  There is something to be said about someone who has known you for 25 years professionally and personally.  While you don’t want to rely entirely on references of that sort, it does help to have a long-standing person in your life vouch for you.  You can add other, more recent connections to the list for the variety.

Networking should be something you continually engage in.

That way you have a wider pool of potential references to choose from.  It’s a good idea to have at least four or five people that you can count on for references.  That way, if you are asked for three references, you have a better chance of identifying the three that people that are most relevant for the position in question.  At the very least, having a few people in mind can provide you with alternates if one of your first choices says no.

Glen’s Tip – Be nice to your references.  If you get a job and a reference was a big part of it then make sure to thank them.  A hand-written note is a nice touch.  And remember, getting a job doesn’t mean you stop networking!

Final Word on Job References

At some point in your career, you are likely to need references.  Keep that in mind, and develop professional and personal relationships that you can count on.

You’ll be able to call on others for help — and be in a position to offer your own help in return.

Your Turn

Make a list of five potential references you could use if you were looking for a job right now.  Shoot each an email to say hi and touch base.  This is part of your networking.  If you don’t currently work with these people then keeping in touch will make the reference more apt to help you out.

Do you have a job search story where choosing a good job reference helped you get a job?  Share it in the comments!

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Published or updated December 4, 2013.


  1. I’ve kept in touch with a couple of former co-workers for that reason. I know there will be times when I will need a reference but can’t use anybody I currently work with because I’m looking for a job in secret. That is actually the worst when on a job application they want to know if they can contact your current boss. I don’t want to say no because I know I would get a good review and it’s not like I’m trying to hide a bad job performance. At the same time, I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag that I’m exploring other alternatives.

  2. When I was hired at my most recent job, it was my references that sealed the deal. I found out after I’d been working for a year that the difference between me and the other person they were considering was our references. I hadn’t actually briefed them ahead of time (a great tip by the way) but they represented me accurately and in a very positive light. I’ve read so many financial blog posts about how to improve your resume, this one is something very fresh. Thanks.

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