It’s true: Some potential employers never ask for professional references. But if they do, the last thing you want is to be caught unprepared. (That doesn’t look good for you — and a last-minute email to a possible reference doesn’t set them up to portray you in a flattering light, either.) This guide is here to help you identify and help your professional references, so that when you’re asked for them in your job search, you’re prepared — and they’re prepared to help you snag the position.
Types of Professional References
Sometimes the trickiest thing about professional references is knowing who to contact. Here are five common types of references — in the next section, we’ll address who yours should be.
Former Employer. A previous employer can provide the best insight into your work ethic, successes and how well you collaborate with a team. They can also describe your responsibilities and how adept you are (or were) at handling them — info a potential employer will want.
Colleague. Someone you worked alongside at a previous job — a coworker who wasn’t your boss — can be an excellent reference. They will be able to speak about things you worked on together and what you achieved as a team. (Teamwork is one of the most important soft skills an employer looks for, so having someone to vouch for your teamwork skills is vital.)
Teacher. If you're a recent or soon-to-be graduate, a teacher or professor can provide a strong reference — especially if they taught a course that is pertinent to your major. They will be able to talk about the skills you picked up during their course, as well as your personal character and even your schoolwork ethic.
Advisor. An academic college advisor is another great option for a reference. They can talk about who you were as a student and how you’ve become the professional you are today.
Supervisor. Someone who supervised you could be another excellent reference to include. A supervisor doesn’t have to be someone you worked with — they could be a supervisor from a volunteer project, an internship or another extracurricular activity. Any of these people have spent enough time working with you to get a sense of your character and passions.
How to Choose Your Professional References
Depending on where you are in your career, you may have many — or few — options when it comes to professional references. So how do you choose your references? In general, you'll want to think about the type of reference you’re looking for. Do you want someone who can speak highly of your work ethic? Do you want someone who can illustrate your personality to employers? When selecting a reference, you want someone who can speak highly of you as a professional, so make sure you choose the best reference for the position.
If you’re a job candidate who’s fresh out of college, with no work experience, you can ask your former professors or advisors to vouch for your hard work and character, especially those you’ve gotten to know pretty well. You can also ask your old track team coach, play director or whoever you interacted with in a meaningful setting.
If you’ve already held down at least one full-time job, you’ll probably be held to a different standard than a recent college graduate when it comes to references. Your first reference choices should be former employers, colleagues and supervisors. If you’re unable to ask — or uncomfortable with asking — your current employer or colleagues, you can reach out to associates you met through professional channels, like business conferences, but that you never actually worked with. While those folks won’t be able to confirm you consistently exceeded expectations and met deadlines, they can speak to your industry knowledge and passion. And that could be enough to get a prospective employer to take a chance on you.
You can also talk with former colleagues who are no longer at the company you worked at together. If that’s the case, then the ban on serving as references probably won’t apply.
How to Reach Out to a Potential Reference
Asking for references can be intimidating. Because references often don’t come from the company you’re working at currently — especially if you haven’t yet told them you’re seeking out new opportunities — you often must reach out to colleagues from across the spectrum of your career. This means contacting people you may not have spoken to in a while, and asking them to take time out of their schedule to attest to your attributes.
But whether you’re reaching out to a current colleague or a former boss, how should you approach them, and what should you say to convince them to be your reference? While it might be tempting to use the same email for everyone, it’s best to tailor each of your emails.
For a former employer, be sure to ask them how they’re doing and take the time to give them a short update on your career and life before jumping into making a request. End your email with the ask: “Would you be available to serve as a reference and provide a positive recommendation for me? If you are, I’d be happy to send you my resume and a sample job description,” is a simple and easy way to ask them to be a reference for you.
You can find five other sample emails, with scripts for how to ask for a reference, here.
How to Prep Your Professional References
Don’t expect your professional references to know everything about you — you’ll have to supply them with some information to help them give a shining recommendation on your behalf.
Here’s how to help your references:
First, tell your references that you’ve named them as a reference. Even if you asked their permission before submitting their name, it’s nice to confirm you passed it along. Plus, it helps your references set aside time to prepare what they would like to say when called.
Next, supply them with a list of your strengths in specific situations, not just basic info. They should be ready to provide examples of projects where you exceeded expectations. Your reference should easily cite one or two situations that highlight your strengths.
Finally, don’t forget to share some suggested weaknesses. (Employers like to ask about both strength and weaknesses.) If your reference knows you well, they will have answers, but you can help them identify how you have overcome or rectified those weaknesses, too.
Now that you know how to identify and approach the best references, here is some additional information that will help you with references and in your job search!