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The Guide to Professional References: How to Choose & Ask

A reference can make or break your application, here's how to choose the right ones

The Guide to Professional References: How to Choose & Ask
Image courtesy of Christina

If you’re in the midst of a job search, odds are you’ll need a list of professional references, and the right connections and recommendations have the power to make or break your chance at the job.

In fact, eight out of 10 HR reps report checking references, and some hiring managers estimate that they eliminate 20 percent of candidates based on their professional references.

What is a professional reference?

A professional reference is a person who vouches for your professional skills and experience.

A potential employer contacts your professional references, typically by phone or email, and asks them questions about your qualifications for a job. The hiring manager or HR rep will ask about both your strengths and weaknesses.

“The reference check is usually used as a way to confirm what a hiring manager or recruiter already suspects to be true,” career and interview coach Michele Mavi says. “But references offer hidden information in the way they answer questions about a previous employee. Things like the tone in their voice, or if they hesitate before offering an answer can serve as signals to potential employers. But it's not all bad. Oftentimes references are asked about challenges a candidate may have in their new role as a way to be in a better position to help them be successful. No one's perfect and even hiring managers and HR reps understand that.”

What’s the difference between a personal reference and a professional reference?

A professional reference is someone you’ve worked with in a professional environment who knows you well enough to talk about your skills and a professional.

A personal reference is someone you haven’t necessarily worked with, but can attest to your character and integrity. This is someone who knows you well, perhaps from work, a volunteer engagement, or from school.

If a potential employer just asks for “references,” they’re probably asking you for professional references, but if you’re unsure, simply ask.

Who can you use a professional reference?

Whomever you choose a professional reference, it should be someone with whom you’ve had an amicable relationship. You want your references to say positive things about you, after all!

A former boss or employer

One of the best recommendations that you can add to your portfolio is a strong recommendation from a former boss or employer (internship supervisors count) that not only speaks to your skills, but also shows that you’re able to maintain a friendly relationship even after you’ve left a position.

Ideally, this is someone you worked with for at least six months in the last five years.

If you didn’t have a great relationship with your direct supervisor

If you didn’t have the best relationship with your manager, list another person who ranked higher than you and was responsible in some way for overseeing or signing off on your work.

Mavi cautions against including only references who worked with you laterally. “Not everyone has a great relationship with their manager. To cover that up, many people end up only listing colleagues as references or managers they worked for several years ago. Unfortunately, that's a red flag to a potential employer. That's not to say that you can't use a colleague or even a client as a reference. Their view of you and your work ethic is equally important. But it is important that potential employers can speak with someone who was in a position to oversee your work.”

Read more:How to Give Two-Weeks Notice: Letter Examples & Leaving on Good Terms


A good word from someone you’ve worked with can speak to a different and vital set of skills, like how you work in a team and how you contribute to company culture.

Ideally, this is someone you worked with for at least six months in the last five years.

A direct report

If you’re applying for a management position, consider asking a direct report to serve as a professional reference. This person should be able to talk about your management and leadership styles and coaching skills.

Ideally, this is someone you worked with for at least six months in the last five years.

Teacher or professor

If you’re fresh out of school or a recent grad, you might not have a lot of professional experience, and therefore references, to choose from, and that’s okay. You can ask a teacher or professor you connected with or who was heavily involved in your coursework. This person should be able to talk about your work ethic and aptitude. If they can vouch for skills (even soft skills !) specifically relevant to the job you’re applying for, even better.

If you’ve been out of school for five years or more, your teachers and professors may not be the strongest references unless you keep in regular contact with them.

Volunteer supervisor/coordinator/colleague

A good supervisor reference doesn’t have to be related to your day job. Have you spent time volunteering? Do you keep a side-hustle? Participate in an extracurricular activity? Do you serve on the PTA or HOA?

A contact like this can not only speak to your work ethic, but also bring light to your passions and paint you as a three-dimensional candidate.

Read more:The Complete Guide to Getting a Job (Whether You’re On Your First or Fifth)

Can a friend be a professional reference?

Don’t list friends as professional references unless that friend is someone you’ve worked with closely in a professional setting or community organization.

Never list family members or spouses as professional references. It’s simply too hard for them to be impartial.

What if you’ve been out of the workforce for an extended period of time? Who can you use as a reference then?

Many women spend time outside the paid workforce, taking care of kids or family members, which can mean they don’t have a manager or colleague from the last few years who can vouch for their abilities.

“Under these circumstances, it's certainly okay to go further back into your work history and reach out to a former manager who can offer insight into what you were like in a corporate setting. Next, think of the organizations you've been involved in while out of the workforce. If you were active in the PTA or a volunteer organization during that time, list someone who can speak to your leadership and organizational skills. It may not have been paid work, but it's work, and it often requires not only leadership but other skills like creativity and problem-solving. These are all things that are of interest to employers.”

Read more:How to Write a Career-Change Cover Letter That Knocks Their Socks Off

Should you include professional references on your resume?

No need to include references on your resume unless the job description explicitly asks for them. Otherwise, provide them only upon request.

“You're better served using the limited space on your resume with information that can enhance your candidacy,” Mavi says. “You should, however, be sure you have your LinkedIn profile hyperlinked on your resume. You should expect an interested hiring manager to look at your profile before calling you and he/she will certainly check any existing references there first.”

Is checking references a good sign?

Yes! Employers generally check references late in the interview process when they’re close to or in the process of choosing final candidate(s).

“Usually, contacts are requested and contacted if you've reached the final stage of the interview process,” says Mavi. “The decision may be between you and another person. Or, in some circumstances, you may be the top and only candidate of interest, and the references are just the last step of the process.”

How to ask for a professional reference

It may feel awkward or intimidating to ask someone to serve as your professional reference, but it’s a normal and easy request to make.

Simply send an email with the request, information about the job you’re applying for, an update on your professional career, and an opportunity for them to say yes or no.

A professional reference request example email

Hi Sam,

I hope life has been treating you well since the last time we last talked! I’m currently on the job hunt, and I’m writing to ask if you’d be willing to serve as a professional reference for me.

The skills and experience I gained while working with you at HelpingHands made a major difference in my professional life. Since then:

  • I’ve earned my MSW at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

  • Completed a clinical rotation at the Williamson community health clinic where I served the HIV/AIDS community

  • Traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, to work with mental health care programs in the foster care system

I’ve attached my latest resume and contact information as well as the job description of the role I’m applying for, and would be more than happy to send along any further materials.

Thank you for your consideration.


The dos and don’ts of asking for a professional reference

Do: ask for permission before you list references

As soon as you begin your job search, go ahead and get your references lined up. It’s a mistake to tell someone that you’ve already listed them as a reference, you need to ask permission. No surprises.

In fact, the next time you’re leaving a job or internship, you might ask your supervisor or a colleague: Could I use you as a professional reference in the future? And when the time comes, confirm that they’re still available.

Do: word your request carefully and positively

After all, you want your reference to say positive things about you, so make sure your letter is cordial.

Don’t: make it seem like they have no choice

Instead ask if they would be willing to be a professional reference.

Do: give plenty of notice before you need to submit your application

Otherwise you’ll risk coming across as underprepared or unprofessional.

Don’t: forget to provide a recent copy of your resume and a general description of the positions you’re applying for

If they do end up getting an email or phone call from your potential employer, they’ll know exactly what to say about your relevant skills.

Do: keep it short, sweet, and grammatically perfect

Your potential reference shouldn’t have to read a novel or sift through spelling errors. Respect their time.

Don’t: ghost your reference after they’ve helped you out

Send them a little note to thank them for being a reference—especially if you got the job!

Read more:How to Prepare for an In-Person Interview

About our source

Michele Mavi has been coaching job seekers and helping organizations hire top talent for over 15 years. As a certified Gallup strengths coach and an applied positive psychology practitioner, she currently helps individuals and teams leverage their strengths to achieve more fulfilling professional and personal outcomes. She is a job search expert and her advice has been seen in several publications,  including Fast Company, U.S. News, Glamour, Business Insider, FairyGodBoss, Career Contessa, and many more.

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