Professional References

How to Select Professional References

While most people focus on updating their resume, applying for jobs, and landing an interview, they overlook a critical part of the hiring process—identifying, gathering, and preparing your list of references. Let’s begin!

This post will cover:

  • Purpose of references
  • Professional vs. personal references
  • Core components of a reference sheet
  • Professional reference FAQs
  • Dos and Don’ts for choosing references
  • Tips on how to ask for a reference

What is a reference sheet?

A reference sheet is a list of people you provide to an employer who can speak positively about your work ethic and the skills, experiences, and achievements that reflect the qualities you bring to the position.

How do employers use references?

A study by SkillSurvey, an online reference checking provider, looked at 300 professionals and revealed that reference checks are the second most-used candidate screening method, behind background checks, with 86% of reference checks conducted before a company extends an offer.

This same study also found that reference checks play an even bigger role for jobseekers targeting senior-level and executive roles, with 84% of those in executive management positions noting they conduct reference checks.

When asked for the main reason why employers conduct reference checks, 63% of respondents say they do it because it helps them hire better employees. Some employers will want to speak with your former manager or the HR department to verify your job title, responsibilities, and dates of employment.

When an employer asks you for references, that’s a good sign they are close to making you an offer.

How do you choose a reference?

Your reference list can include various people, but some will serve you better than others, depending on your career targets and current career stage.

Examples can include:

  • Former managers or supervisors
  • Trusted colleagues
  • Former clients or vendors
  • College professors or teachers
  • Supervisor from a volunteer organization
  • Athletic coaches
  • Trusted friends, mentors, etc.

A recent graduate looking for their first job or internship may ask a high school teacher, professor, academic advisor, or coach to be a reference. On the other hand, a more experienced professional would rely on former supervisors, managers, colleagues, or clients.

Start by making a list of everyone you can think of and narrow it down based on your priorities, the nature of the relationship, and the types of positions you are targeting.

Professional vs. Personal References

  • Professional

These people will have worked closely with you for at least 6 months within the past 7 years and have the strongest insight into your work performance, ethics, and goals.

  • Personal

These people may come from many different areas of your life outside of work, such as volunteer groups, and have a good grasp of your values, integrity, and character.

Do not list family members, immediate or extended, because they can’t give an objective view of your work ethic, history, and moral character. The only exception is if you worked for your family’s business and a family member was your boss or coworker.

Finally, pay attention to reference-related instructions during the application process or any communications you had with the recruiter or prospective employer. Do they specify personal or professional references?

I advise you to compose your list with mostly professional references if no preference is indicated.

What do I include on a reference sheet?

Your reference list should include the following information:

First & Last Name

Current/Most Recent Position

Current/Recent Company

Company Address

Phone Number

Email Address

I also recommend including a short description of your working relationship.

For example:

Helen R. Padilla

Head of Analytical R&D, Umbrella Corporation

4235 Gandy Street, St. Louis, MO 63101

(314) 992-9812

Helen was my direct manager while I worked as an Analytical Chemist at Umbrella Corp from 2013 – 2017.

Professional Reference FAQs

Should I list my references on my resume?

No, not unless the application specifically asks you to. References on a resume contain sensitive information and should not be widely distributed due to data privacy concerns.

Don’t include References Available Upon Request because it’s a waste of space and implies that employers will ask for them as part of the hiring process.

When should I start gathering references?

When you start a job search, you should start identifying and contacting your references so that you’re not scrambling to get them together when an employer asks for them.

Companies normally ask for references later in the hiring process. However, some companies have started to request this information at the start of the application process.

By being proactive and starting this process early, you will save yourself time and frustration.

How many references should I include?

The number of references depends on your career stage.

If you’re looking for your first entry-level position, 2-3 references should be sufficient. On the other hand, if you’re targeting a senior position, especially a VP or c-suite role, with more money on the line, you may need a longer list of people from different points of your career history. In the end, follow the employer’s guidance.

Do I have to list my current manager or supervisor?

No, and that’s normal. Unless you have a relationship where you can be open about your job search goals without negative consequences, don’t let them know you’re job searching.

If an employer is pushing you to contact your current boss, that’s a red flag, and you should push back by letting them know you can’t jeopardize your current position.

What if I’m no longer in touch with my previous manager?

Most employers will be suspicious if they cannot speak to anyone who has managed you in the past, which is why maintaining your professional connections is so important. If you’ve lost touch with your former boss, try to find them using LinkedIn.

For more details on how to find contacts via LinkedIn, check out STEM Job Search, Part 3 – How to Build Your Professional Network.

What do I do if I’m worried about my former boss giving me a bad reference?

In that case, I advise leaving them off your reference list and replacing them with someone who can speak positively about your work ethic and experiences.

What if my current or most recent manager’s name is required?

Some online applications require you to list the name of your current or most recent boss. Doing this if you’re currently employed and conducting a confidential job search is risky. So what do you do?

If not required, you can leave the field blank or say you will provide that information at the interview or later in the hiring process. You can also provide the name of a different manager who works for a different company.

Ultimately, you’ll need to use your best judgment and decide if losing that opportunity is worth the risk of losing your current job if your employer finds out.

Do I need to contact and prepare my references?

Yes. Never put someone’s information on your reference sheet without asking permission first. Doing this can backfire and hurt your candidacy.

A CareerBuilder study found that 15% of jobseekers listed someone as a reference without asking them or telling them. The same survey also revealed that 3 in 5 employers said when they contacted a reference listed on an application, the reference didn’t have good things to say about the candidate.

I recall an incident over 4 years ago, working with a client who put someone down as a reference without telling them or updating them on their job search goals. This person was caught completely off guard and couldn’t effectively respond to questions about my client’s skills, character, and accomplishments.

Unfortunately, my client lost out on a great career opportunity. This situation was preventable. Don’t let this be you.

Always ask in advance, even if you’re 100% certain this person would gladly serve as a reference. You should also never assume that someone willing to be a reference for one opportunity will be willing to serve as one for others.

To maximize your chances, share a copy of your resume and the job postings for the roles you’re applying for, and try to draw parallels between your achievements and the job qualifications.

How do I ask someone to be a reference?

Below, I included a sample message you can adapt as needed to start contacting references:

Hi [Reference Name],

I hope you’re well. How have you been? [Additional greetings here].

I’m contacting you to ask a favor. I’ve started a job search and am looking for opportunities as a [Position(s)] in [Companies/industries]. Would you be willing to be a reference for me? I thought of you because we’ve [How you’ve worked together], and I believe you could speak to my [Key skills, knowledge, and abilities].

I’ve attached a copy of my current resume and the position description for your reference. I know the hiring team is particularly interested in a candidate who [short description of key qualifications]. I’m hoping you can talk about the following:

  • [1-2 core skills]
  • [Relevant projects]
  • [Key differentiators]

Please let me know if you’re willing to serve as a reference and, if so, your preferred contact information (i.e., phone and email address). Of course, if you’re busy or don’t feel comfortable serving as a reference, I completely understand. Thank you in advance for your time, and let me know how I can return the favor.


[Your Name]

Go beyond simply asking. Asking is the easy part.

If it’s been some time since you worked with this person, you will want to refresh their memory of specific projects you worked on and other relevant details.

Final Dos and Don’ts

As we conclude this post, remember the following:


  • If possible, meet your references in person to formally make your request. If it’s been a while since you’ve been in contact, remind them who you are, what you worked on, and your job search goals.

  • Show respect for your references by asking for their preferred method of contact (phone or email), and put this information on your reference sheet.

  • Move on if you don’t receive an enthusiastic response from a prospective reference or they take a long time to get back to you. Employers usually view neutral or reluctant references as a negative.

  • List your references on a separate sheet of paper that mirrors the same look and branding as your resume, including the same fonts and colors, for a consistent, cohesive, and congruent look.

  • Maintain a master list of references, preferably with 10 or more people with various backgrounds. From this, you can prepare a short list that best matches the references for each opportunity.

  • Print a copy of your reference list to take with you to interviews in case the interviewer is impressed with your candidacy and wants to fast-track the process.

  • Coach your references on what skills, experiences, and achievements you want them to mention and those you don’t or those irrelevant or inappropriate to the position.

  • Update your references on your progress and relay any information to the employer, ideally within one day of the interview, in case the employer may start contacting references shortly after you leave their office.

  • Thank your references, no matter the outcome, by sending a thank you note (minimum) or treating them to a nice lunch or dinner—whatever you can afford—and offer to return the favor.


  • List someone as a reference without asking permission and receiving a “yes” confirmation.

  • List only old references, as it might unintentionally convey that your current relationships are weak.

  • Pressure your prospective references. Give them a few days to a week to decide, and phrase your request politely so they can say “no” if they don’t feel comfortable.

  • Annoy your references by using the same one more than 3 times. Being a reference can be a major time commitment, and the last thing you want to do is make that person resent talking about you.

  • Choose anyone. Be selective about who speaks positively about your work ethic and background.

  • Assume your references will say the right things. Set yourself up for success by sharing your resume and the job posting(s) you’re being considered for.

  • List references directly on your resume unless you are specifically instructed to do so.

  • Let your references get caught off guard. Keep them updated on your interview progress, the specific job(s), and the person who may be contacting them.

  • Choose anyone who fired you as it is likely s/he will not have anything positive to say about you. The exception to this rule is if you were let go due to circumstances outside your control, like a downsizing.

  • List family members, including immediate or extended family, spouses, partners, etc. The exception is if you worked for your family’s business or did some relevant freelance work for a friend.

  • Offer your references in an interview unless asked.

The importance of networking personally and professionally cannot be overstated. The right references can increase your chances of receiving a job offer while maintaining strong relationships with past employers during the hiring process. By staying connected to former coworkers, managers, vendors, and clients, you can expand your network and open doors for future opportunities.

Scientech Resumes is dedicated to helping science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals find fulfilling work through targeted, branded, and keyword-optimized resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and other career marketing documents. Schedule a FREE 20-minute discovery session to get some real-time feedback on your current resume and job search strategy or connect with me on LinkedIn. Let’s get you where you want to go, with greater results!

Kate Williamson

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