Career & Finance

Your Guide to Getting Job References


Your resume is tailored, the cover letter is perfected, and you’re ready to submit your information for the job of your dreams. What’s one other thing you should make sure you have squared away? References.

That’s right—job references might seem like an archaic tradition of the past. But, believe me, this step of the process is still alive and well today. In fact, employers expect you to have a roster of references ready to hand over for their review. If you don’t? You run the risk of looking both unprepared and unqualified.

However, if you’ve never assembled a list of references before the whole process can understandably seem a little daunting and uncomfortable. Don’t panic yet—it’s not complex! Here’s what you need to know.

Why do you need references?

Of course, anybody who’s applying for a job is going to talk about how intelligent, accomplished, and qualified they are. We all want to present ourselves as the perfect fit for the open position—and employers are well aware that this pressure means they likely won’t get the whole truth about a candidate straight from their own mouths.

Employers call upon references to dig in and find out more about your work history and professional reputation.

This is where your references come in. Employers call upon these people to dig in and find out more about your work history and professional reputation. And, while you obviously want to select references that will speak highly of your work ethic and accomplishments (no listing that scorned and bitter ex-boss!), potential employers use this as an opportunity to gain some outsider perspective about your qualifications as well as verify what you’ve already told them.

Who should you ask?

As mentioned above, ideally you need references that have a positive opinion of you. But that doesn’t mean you should run to your best friend or your mom—although, I don’t doubt that they’d both be more than willing to sing your praises.

Instead, you should select three to five people who are familiar with your work in a professional setting. Reach out to a former supervisor with whom you still have a positive relationship. Contact an old colleague you worked closely with. Or, if you’re just making your entrance into the working world, see if any of your college professors or extracurricular leaders are willing to be listed.

You need to make an effort to select references that are familiar with your recent work. That means your high school soccer coach or the parent who employed you as a babysitter in your younger years will no longer fit the bill. The more current, the better.

How do you ask?

We’re all familiar with the golden rule: You have to ask someone’s permission before you can list him or her as a reference on your documents. And that’s true. But what happens next? Exactly how do you ask this person if you can utilize them as a reference?

Don’t plan to blanket your entire network with a generic email. Instead, reach out and make a personal connection with each person you’d like to list. If your desired references are local, start by inviting each out for a cup of coffee to chat. This not only gives you an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, but also to get caught up on what’s been happening with you professionally. You should bring a copy of your resume along for this person to keep.

Reach out to make a personal connection with each person you’d like to list as a reference.

After a bit of conversation about life and your career plans, go ahead and pop the question. Explain that you value his or her opinion, and you’d love to use their name as a reference in your job hunt. Chances are, you won’t get turned down.

What happens if your desired reference isn’t located in your area? I’d recommend that you still skip the impersonal email. Set up a time for a phone conversation or video call. Again, it just makes a better impression and gives you adequate time to catch up in a more personal manner.

What else should you keep in mind?

Now, the hard part is over. But, there are a few other little things you should remember in order to maintain a positive relationship with your job references.

First, be aware that this isn’t something you should plan on doing just once. Since you always want your references to have a current perception of your skills and qualifications, plan to update your list as your career progresses.

The old supervisor you asked to list as a reference five years ago and then completely lost touch with will understandably be blindsided if he suddenly gets a call from a company inquiring about you. Even worse, he might hardly remember you. You can definitely keep a reference on your list for years—you just need to keep in contact.

Secondly, it’s important that you always show respect and gratitude for references. Send a quick email to let them know when you send their contact information so they have a heads up they might be called. If they end up connecting with a potential employer, they’ll have to take time out of their own busy schedules to talk about you. So always send along a quick thank you note to recognize their contribution.

There you have it—everything you need to know about collecting quality references for your job hunt. Keep these tips in mind to pull together a solid list of contacts, and you’re one step closer to landing the gig of your dreams!

When’s the last time you updated your reference list? Are you due for a refresh?