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Choose the Right References

Finding references may seem like the easiest part of your work search—you just need a few names and numbers, right?

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

Employers who are interested in you will likely contact at least 3 references. That’s why it pays to invest some time in building the best list you can.

Consider credibility

A believable reference is most often someone who has worked with you and knows your work, like a supervisor. But don’t go too high up. It’s better to get a reference from someone who knows you well than someone higher up who hasn’t worked with you closely.

Try to get references from people who can:

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

Ask for consent

Start by making a list of potential references. Note their 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.


  1. Contact your choices personally by phone or email and ask if it’s okay to list them as references. Listen for any hesitation—it may imply they won’t give you a great review.
  2. Ask and note whether they’d rather be reached by phone or email.
  3. Confirm they will give you a positive review. Ask questions that give them an easy “out” if they hesitate. For example, you can ask, “Do you think you know me and my work well enough to be comfortable giving me a reference?”

Work around problems

You might run into problems finding 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, moved or gone out of business?

If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you may need some strategies to work around these issues. 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 awards, feedback, letters of recognition and written comments from customers or clients to show your value as an employee.
  • Ask your references who have moved or retired if they mind giving their home phone number or email address.
  • Ask references in other countries to provide a letter on company letterhead, or an email contact.

Make sure they’re ready to answer questions about you

Tell your references they’ll be contacted a few days before it’s likely to happen. This will give them time to prepare what they want to say.

Give your references a current resumé to remind them of your background and achievements at their company.

Send your references an outline of the job you want. 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. Employers often scope out candidates on social media. 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 too often. You don’t want to wear out your welcome.
  • Wait too long to line up your references. You want to have enough references when you need them, 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 by 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. It can contain 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. It’s something to keep in mind when you land your next job.

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