Professional References - Your Ultimate Guide to Asking for Them and Managing Them

Professional references.  Yes, we know.  We can almost hear you groaning.  Probably because, as much as you dislike having to make the necessary arrangements to get them, you know that it is “difficult” (i.e., virtually impossible) to get a job without good, if not great, references.

We say “make the necessary arrangements” because there’s more to getting references than simply asking for them.   Obtaining great professional references requires planning, diligence, attention to detail and never taking anything for granted.

Here, then, are some important things to remember when considering which people you would like to provide a reference about your skills and accomplishments, personal and character attributes and/or any intangibles that might be of benefit to a prospective employer.

How To Ask For Professional References

  1. The saying “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission” should never be relied upon when dealing with professional references.  Absolutely, positively contact your prospective professional references to make sure that they are ready, willing, and able to speak to potential employers.  Whether you ask via telephone, email, over lunch, or by way of LinkedIn, for example, give them the opportunity to decline.  And no matter what, don’t ask at the last minute.
  2. It’s not who you know, it’s how well you know who you know.  Don’t ask anyone you aren’t certain will be positive and helpful to your job search.  Unenthusiastic individuals are not likely to present a compelling case for you and are better left unused.
  3. Testing, 1-2-3, testing.  When you ask someone to be a reference, pay attention to the response.  Is there hesitation?  Is the response “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that” or some other effort to find an exit?  If so, give that person a way out and find someone else.
  4. How to ask the ask.  As tempting as it may be to simply request “Would you be a reference for me?”, you can do better.  Try “Are you comfortable enough with my work to provide me with a professional reference?”  Not only is the comfort of the person doing you this favor important, so too is making it easy for them.  Let them know whether you’re relying on them as a technical reference or as someone who can speak to your demeanor, attitude, and character.  Remind them of special projects or accomplishments in your past that it would be helpful for them to mention to prospective employers. This will help him/her better prepare for the types of questions that might be forthcoming.
  5. Breaking news.  If a reference isn’t someone associated with your current/most recent job, you’ll need to update them on what’s been going on with you since you last worked for them.  Give them access to your LinkedIn profile.  Provide them a copy of your current resume and highlight the responsibilities that are similar to those you performed while working with/for your common employer.
  6. Stay in touch.  No matter how busy you are, it is always recommended that you stay connected to those you consider important in your professional world, regardless of whether you expect to use them as job references at some point in time.  First of all, you never know when you might need a good word from someone you never contemplated.  Secondly, it’s difficult to ask for a favor out of the blue.  Asking for a professional reference from someone with whom you haven’t spoken in years can be awkward and may not generate the enthusiastic response you’d like.  Third, it enables you to keep tabs on people you may need to call upon, ensuring you know how to get in touch with them.

How To Handle References Once You Have Them

Never Send Professional References With Your Resume

Never submit your job search references with the resume. You want to have a face-to-face meeting with the employer, or at the very least, a telephone interview, before providing references.

The purpose of your resume, at least at this stage of the job search process, is to generate enough interest to get you called in for an interview. By listing references on your resume, you just give the recipient of your resume another opportunity to screen you out before you have a chance to sell yourself in person.

Also, avoid the old and overused phrase “references provided on request.” It is taken for granted that you will provide references on request. There is no need to state on your resume that you will do so. Listing this on your resume just takes up valuable space that could be used for more important data.

Who Do You Know?

Former or current direct supervisors make excellent references, but clients, your former employees, co-workers, and vendors you have interfaced with often make great references also.

If you have people willing to endorse you whose names are recognizable in your industry or profession and who will add credibility to your job search, by all means, include them–and do so prominently.

But, don’t neglect to include references from people at all levels, particularly those in positions that represent the people you would have to interact with on a real-world, day-to-day basis in your next job.

Stay In Touch

As much as possible, you will want to maintain connections with “old” colleagues and other people that you worked with or associated with in past jobs.

While the most current references will often hold the most weight, having no references from past employers can look suspect. Recruiters may wonder, for example, if you left your past employer on bad terms or if you had or have trouble establishing strong professional relationships.

If you have lost touch with old colleagues, you might try looking for them on LinkedIn or other professional networking sites.

Ask Permission

This bears repeating: contact each person that you intend to list as a reference and ask for their permission.

Never provide someone as a reference unless you have discussed it with them first and briefed them on your current job search. Verify the contact information for each reference and ask for permission to list a telephone number and email address.

When relevant, you will want to list the name of your reference, along with their current job title and the company at which they work. While mailing addresses are rarely necessary, you should include at least the city and state (or country, if the reference is an international one). You should also include the preferred telephone number and email address for the reference.

Your Professional References Dossier

Bring a professionally typed and formatted list of professional references with you to the interview, preferably with a font and formatting style that is consistent with your resume.

To really stand out from the competition, you can make your references list a powerful part of your overall marketing presentation by including a brief background of how the person knows you and for how many years, along with a summary of the qualifications and achievements that your reference can speak to. If you worked together on a key project, for example, this would be the place to mention it.

Formatting your references in this way transforms a simple listing of references into a references dossier, and will give you true competitive advantage once the selection process begins, as very few (if any) of your competitors will provide references in this memorable and highly professional way. Here is  just one example of how a references dossier may look:

Example Professional References Dossier

Would you benefit from professional help in preparing for a job search with a professional resume, cover letters, reference dossier, and more? Set up a free informational consultation to learn more.

This post was updated and expanded from a post originally published on August 10, 2010.

About the Author: Michelle Dumas

Michelle Dumas is the founder and CEO of Distinctive Career Services, one of the internet's longest-standing and most respected professional resume writing firms. Michelle is a 6X certified and 7X award-winning resume writer and career consultant. To learn more about the services offered by Distinctive Career Services visit

Share This Article, Choose Your Platform!