Finding a new job can be challenging, but tapping into your professional network for support can bolster your confidence and chances of landing a new position. Individuals in your network may be able to provide you with excellent professional references that show new employers who you are and how you might contribute to their organization.
In the hiring process, prospective employers want to understand your track record and how you handled past work relationships so they can gauge if you’re a good fit. To ensure you’re presenting yourself in the best possible light, it’s crucial to tap professional references who understand your strengths.
We’ll explain why professional references matter, outline how to choose the right professional references, and share best practices for approaching references with tact and professionalism.
A professional reference is someone you’ve worked with in the past who can speak to your suitability for a new position. Professional references can be any of the following (and more):
The best professional references are people who can speak to your strengths, work ethic and ability to collaborate with others. They should be people you trust and who will speak highly of you.
Job searching in the digital age presents challenges, including getting noticed by hiring managers. You’re likely one of many candidates trying to convey that they’re the right fit, so it’s important to stand out. Professional references help you distinguish yourself and give potential employers insight into whether you’ll be a valuable addition to the company.
Professional references can give employers a window into “the real you” by doing the following:
At its core, the hiring process involves getting to know someone. Employers want to know who you are, whether you’re qualified for the job, and if you’re a good hire for the company culture. By providing solid professional references, you amplify and confirm your most exemplary attributes.
If you’re a hiring manager conducting a reference check, be sure to ask essential reference check questions that address the candidate’s job performance, ability to understand and follow directions, and ability to work well as part of a team.
Whether you’re switching careers or looking for your first job in a new field, think critically about whom to list as a reference. Choosing someone who isn’t familiar with your work ethic or is irrelevant to the employer may not be effective.
In general, every reference should meet these essential criteria:
Additionally, consider the following best practices for selecting professional references who can speak to your strengths:
If you’re a recent college graduate or otherwise just starting out, listing a professor, internship colleague or community leader are all excellent options. If you opt for a professor, think critically about why the professor would want to recommend you, advised Ruma Sen, a professor of communications at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
Sen said students and recent graduates should be as formal and polished as possible when asking their professors for recommendations. “I am not particularly excited about recommending a person who cannot … write an email without grammatical errors,” Sen noted.
If you’re a recent college graduate who’s job hunting, highlight your life experience, school projects, leadership positions and volunteer opportunities to give potential employers a feel for your skill set.
When you’ve narrowed down the best professional references for your situation, it’s crucial to notify them, ensure they’re OK with being your professional references, and share how you’ll use their references.
Ask for express permission to list someone as a professional reference. Don’t blindside anyone with a professional reference listing, even if you’re on excellent terms. They’ll likely be unprepared to discuss you and your qualifications.
Additionally, never list your reference’s email address and phone number on a publicly uploaded résumé. You’ll open them up to unsolicited communications and put them in a terrible position.
When you’re sure your reference wants to help, give them a heads-up about your job search and inform them they may hear from a hiring manager shortly. Even if they’ve indicated in the past that they’d be happy to vouch for you, let them know you’re seeking a new position, reaffirm that it’s OK to list them as a reference, and give them a heads-up that a hiring manager may call them.
In some cases, you may need a written letter of recommendation to give to a potential employer. If so, give your references ample time to create the letter — ideally, a month.
If you’re in a situation where a hiring manager will contact references and you know the timetable, inform the reference so they can work it into their schedule.
When interviewing for a job, you’ve probably done extensive research on the position so you can discuss your most relevant experience and show you’re a good fit. Ideally, your professional reference should know what your potential job entails so they can give you the best, most helpful reference possible.
Share details about the position, along with the in-demand career skills or accomplishments you want your source to highlight. The more information you provide, the easier it will be to write a reference or prepare for a reference-check phone call.
Professionals can provide references in several ways. Be clear about your needs so your reference knows what to expect. For example, will the employer call them directly? Does the company require a letter? How many times will the reference be used? Know the specifics to keep your professional reference informed and ensure there are no surprises.
When you’re looking for your next job, understand that many prospective employers conduct social media screenings. Therefore, it’s vital to keep your personal social media profiles professional and appropriate.
You’ve decided on professional references, asked their permission, and listed them as part of your new job application. At this point, understanding professional reference etiquette is crucial to ensure you can list them again and maintain your professional relationship.
Listing someone as a professional reference is a form of networking. Treating it that way opens the door to a professional support system to foster your career goals. You prop up your professional worth by building your network of colleagues — former managers, co-workers, employees and more.
By leaning on your professional network, you give prospective employers a window into your professional worth, thereby deepening your relationship with your references.
Adryan Corcione contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.