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Updated Oct 24, 2023

Want a Professional Reference? How to Ask and What to Expect

Finding a new job can be challenging, but getting a good professional reference can help. Here's how to go about it the right way.

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Written By: Matt D'AngeloBusiness Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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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. 

In addition to providing professional references, write a great résumé and hone your interview skills to boost your chances of landing a new position.

What are professional references?

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):

  • Former managers
  • Former co-workers
  • Current co-workers
  • Mentors
  • Former teachers or administrators
  • Community leaders with whom you’ve volunteered

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.

Why are professional references important? 

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:

  • Vouching for your work ethic
  • Conveying that you’re a good fit
  • Sharing your potential for professional development and growth
  • Confirming your skills and experience
  • Speaking to your qualifications
  • Verifying your interview answers
  • Discussing your exemplary habits
  • Giving insight into your personality
  • Providing an outside perspective on who you are 

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. 

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
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.

Who should you list as a professional reference?

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: 

  • They’re relevant to the job you’re applying for.
  • They know “the real you.” 
  • They’re qualified and reputable in their own field.
  • They’re ready to be a cheerleader for you.

Additionally, consider the following best practices for selecting professional references who can speak to your strengths:

  • Choose a professional reference you worked for. Assuming you still have a good professional relationship, your immediate supervisors from previous jobs are the best people to list as references. “[Direct supervisors] know you the best and can vouch for you when it comes to your strengths and work ethic,” said Bill Peppler, chief operations officer at staffing firm Kavaliro. By listing a former boss, you give a potential employer a window into what you’re like as an employee. 
  • Choose a current boss as a professional reference (if possible). It may not be possible in all cases, but if you have a particularly understanding boss at your current job, you may be able to ask for a reference as you search for your next opportunity.
  • Choose a professional reference who worked for you. If you’re a manager, it’s helpful to include a former employee as a reference. They can vouch for you as a good manager and offer insight into your management style. 
  • Choose a professional mentor as a reference. Peppler advised considering people who have mentored you in a professional setting. “Other people to strongly consider are professional mentors,” Peppler noted. “If there [are people] in your company who have trained you or taken you under their wing, consider them, since they have a solid understanding of your personality and receptiveness to training and feedback.”
  • Choose a professional reference you worked with. When you list a colleague, the prospective employer can learn about you from someone with whom you consulted and solved problems. They can offer professional insight into who you are as a worker.
  • Choose a professional reference in your recent past. Consider the length of time and how long ago you worked with the person you list as a professional reference. Choosing someone you worked with many years ago instead of a more recent employer might indicate that you’re trying to hide something. At the very least, a reference you worked with a long time ago may be less relevant to the current stage of your career. 

What if you’re a recent college graduate?

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.

How do you ask for a professional reference?

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.  

1. Get permission to use them as professional 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. 

2. Notify professional references that someone may contact them. 

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. 

3. Give your professional references plenty of notice. 

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. 

4. Give your references the appropriate background information.

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. 

5. Tell them how you’ll use their reference.

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.

Did You Know?Did you know
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.

What professional reference etiquette should you follow?

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.

  • Follow up with your professional references. Regardless of whether you get the job, thank your reference for their time and effort. Their support is invaluable, so it’s vital to express your appreciation. If you can speak with them, use the conversation to understand more about their professional lives. If they’re too busy to speak in person or via phone, send a thank you letter to express your gratitude. Keep them posted about your job hunt, as they’re likely invested in your success. 
  • Offer to return the favor. If appropriate, offer to be a professional reference for them in the future. However, there’s a fine line here. If the person is senior to you or your professional relationship isn’t at this level of intimacy, you can forgo this offer.
  • Don’t use them as a reference again without permission. While it’s possible to reuse past professional references, you’ll need to get their permission again.
  • Don’t be pushy. Regardless of whom you ask and what type of recommendation you need, professional references are doing you a favor, and you should act accordingly. If they’re not comfortable providing a reference, respect their decision and move on to another source. If they agree to recommend you, thank them for their time and effort.

Professional references and networking

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.

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Written By: Matt D'AngeloBusiness Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Matt D'Angelo has spent several years reviewing business software products for small businesses, such as GPS fleet management systems. He has also spent significant time evaluating financing solutions, including business loan providers. He has a firm grasp of the business lifecycle and uses his years of research to give business owners actionable insights. With a journalism degree from James Madison University, D'Angelo specializes in distilling complex business topics into easy-to-read guides filled with expertise and practical applications. In addition, D'Angelo has profiled notable small businesses and the people behind them.
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