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Choose the Right References

Picking and providing references may seem like the easiest part of your work search—you’re just providing a few names and numbers, right?

Not really. You should know about pitfalls of choosing references, strategies for ensuring potential employers only hear the best about you, and workarounds for when you’re short on references.

Employers who are very interested in you will likely contact at least 3 references, so it pays to invest some time in building the best list you can.

Consider Credibility

A credible reference is most often someone who has worked with you and knows your work, like a supervisor or manager. However, it’s better to get a reference from someone who knows you well than someone in a higher-ranking position who hasn’t worked with you closely.

Try to get references from people who can

  • Speak to your experience, skills, accomplishments and work ethic.
  • Talk about you in terms of the skills you need for the new job.
  • Express themselves clearly in a phone conversation or in writing.

Ask Permission

Start by making a list of potential references, with name, position, company, phone number, email and how they prefer to be contacted. You may also want to include a few words about how they know you.


  • Contact your choices personally by phone or email to ask if they are okay with being listed as references. Listen for any hesitation—it may imply they won’t give you a great review.
  • Ask and note whether they’d rather be reached by phone or email.
  • Confirm that they will give you a positive review. A useful strategy is to ask questions that give them an easy “out” if they are hesitant. For example, you can ask, “Do you think you know me and my work well enough to be comfortable giving me a reference?”
Who can be my reference and how do I ask them? (1:33)
An Alberta Career Advisor describes who is appropriate to use as a reference. Get answers to your questions on

Work Around Problems

You might run into several problems in choosing references:

  • Are you new to the job market?
  • Are your references in another country?
  • Do you not want your current employer to know you’re looking for work?
  • Have your best references retired, relocated or gone out of business?

If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you may have to be more creative about choosing your references. For example, you could

  • Ask people from other areas of your life. Teachers, instructors or people you know from volunteer work may be able to vouch for your character and skills.
  • Provide copies of evaluations, letters of recognition, written comments from customers or clients, or awards to show your value as an employee.
  • Ask whether references who have moved or retired would mind being contacted at home.
  • Ask references who are in another country to provide a letter on company letterhead, or if they consent to being contacted by email.

Ensure They Give a Good Impression of You

Give your references notice about being contacted a few days before it’s likely to happen. This will give them time to prepare what they want to say.

Provide your references with an updated resumé or profile as a reminder of your background and what you achieved at their company.

Offer your references a description of the position you’re competing for. Include a brief list of the necessary skills, so they can speak to those.

Avoid Pitfalls

You may be tempted to ask co-workers or friends to serve as references. But it’s not uncommon for hirers to scope out candidates on social media—and if they come across photos of you at parties with your reference, your credibility will go out the window. Choose people who know you well on a business level.

That said, if you and your immediate supervisor don’t see eye to eye, you can ask a co-worker or a different supervisor (who knows your work) for a reference.

Also, try not to

  • Use the same reference more than several times. You don’t want to wear out your welcome.
  • Wait too long to line up your references. You don’t want to be left without enough references, and they will appreciate time to prepare.

Plan for Next Time

Good reference etiquette can help ensure your pool of good references never runs dry. Follow these best practices:

  • Keep in touch with your top references via phone, email or social media.
  • Every time you leave a position, ask for a letter of recommendation.
  • Stay on good terms with past employers.
  • Consider building a portfolio of performance reviews, thank you letters and testimonials from clients and customers to share with future employers.

Finally, remember that employers aren’t limited to calling only the references you provide. With a little detective work, they can track down supervisors and colleagues you haven’t listed. All you can do is hope you made a great impression on those people—something to keep in mind when you land your next job.

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Used for illustrative purposes.
Subject may be a model.

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