What To Do When You Have No References: 5 Expert Tips

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Zipjob Team

10 min read

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What To Do When You Have No References: 5 Expert Tips

You’ve applied for some jobs and nailed a few interviews, giving you just the right amount of confidence you need to surge ever more forward on your job journey. One of the positions you went for is looking more and more likely. You loved the company vibe, you clicked with all of the interviewers, and the job description looked right up your street. You know you’ve got the skills and the qualities required for the role, so what on earth could go wrong? In the recruitment process, what’s the next obvious step in this scenario?

If the company is as keen on you as you are on them, the next stage is that the potential employer is probably going to ask you for references. References can make or break your job application at this point. But what do you do when you have no references? We have five expert tips for you.

What are references?

If you have no references for a job, it’s time to consider what can be done, but first, let’s nail down what we actually mean by references.

A reference is a written testimonial regarding your character and work capabilities. It’s normally compiled by someone from a previous place of work that was senior to you. 

It’s now regarded as old school to include the names and contact details of any references on your resume in 2023. It’s not even necessary to put “References are available upon request” at the end of your resume, as it’s only further down the line in the recruitment process that they’ll be required. Plus, potential employers will ask for references whether they’re “available upon request” or not.

Why do employers ask for references?

References are asked for because people in the know at the organization you’re about to join want to create a broader picture of you as a possible employee but also as a person in your own right.

References are requested for the following reasons:

To confirm your background

Some jobs apply a rigorous process, needing to prove your qualifications and identity by checking with references before moving on to the next step of the hiring process.

To verify your work history/education

Everyone knows that prospective employers often perform background checks to verify the validity of the information on your resume. They also use references as a means to confirm that you’re telling the truth about your history, experience, qualifications, achievements, and skills. 

Check to see if you’d be a good fit for the business

Contacting a reference will enlighten an employer as to how your qualifications and personality would fit into the workplace.

To discover your character

You’re only likely to provide details of references that you’ve built a rapport with, so their take on you will give a prospective employer a different slant of your work ethic and personality that they weren’t able to access during an interview.

Why you might have no references for a job

There are a few different reasons why you might have no references for a job. If you’re new to the workforce, you probably haven’t had time to establish work relationships that lead to being able to ask for a reference. Or maybe you’re new to the country, so your references are hard to contact, either because of a language barrier or time zone difficulties. Alternatively, you may have left under a cloud from your last place of employment and would never have anything to do with them again!

Let’s look at this in more detail.

You’re a recent graduate

If you’ve just graduated, your only experience of work is probably part-time/summer jobs or a short internship. That’s not much to go on but is fairly standard for entry-level positions. Here, your choice is to pick your professor, favorite teacher, or another academic contact. You could also choose someone as a character reference from outside a professional setting.

You’re freelance or self-employed

If you’ve been self-employed or worked freelance for a long time and then decided to become a staff member at a new company, you might feel challenged when seeking out a professional reference. Use a trusted client or vendor to vouch for you. It’s perfectly feasible to approach someone you’ve done business with to explain your expertise and work ethic.

You recently moved to a new country

If you’ve recently relocated, it might be difficult to find professional contacts for your first job. Panic not! It’s fine to use contacts, colleagues, or managers from where you were based before. Do make sure, though, that the potential employer can easily contact the references you provide and that the references can communicate in English or other appropriate language.

You aren’t part of any organizations or clubs

We all come across people we meet during our daily lives, forging relationships as we go. If you have a trusted contact who will speak positively about you, then you can use them as a reference. You don’t have to have known them for years or even interacted with them countless times.

Expert Tip

Make a list of all the people you interact with besides family to gauge who would be the best choice.

Many people will ask, “Can you use friends as references?”. Generally, it’s not a good idea as friends are seen as biased and will give you a glowing review even without knowing much about your work ethic or career achievements.

If you need to choose someone as a character reference, try to pick someone who has seen you in a more serious or work-related capacity, such as working alongside you in a volunteering post or within an academic setting. 

What to do if you don’t have professional references

Whatever your reason is for having no references for a job, our team of career experts and former hiring managers can help you out when you need it the most with the following 5 tips.

1. Start by looking at your professional network

If you’re on LinkedIn, there’s a good chance your network includes past coworkers, former college professors, or people you currently work with. Look at your list of connections and identify those people who know you and would speak positively about you.

“As a career coach, I often advise my clients to think of non-traditional references such as educators, coworkers, and leaders from community involvement projects. Even if you have a supervisor who will give you a glowing review, it’s great to offer a few references that can offer a different perspective.”

If you’ve never held a job before, you obviously won’t have any connections who have supervised you at work. However, you might still be connected with one of your college professors who can speak highly about your skills and work ethic. If you’re a recent graduate, this is a perfectly valid option for a character reference.

If you have held a job before, you’re not limited to using your supervisor as a reference. Former or current colleagues are often great references, as they can talk about how you work as part of a team or perform similar job functions. Be careful about including current coworkers in a stealth job search, though; you don’t want to put them in an awkward position.

Check out these templates to ask your network to be a reference for you.

2. Have you done any internships, volunteer work, or freelancing?

Job seekers often overlook internships, volunteer work, and freelancing gigs when it comes to work experience. It all counts! Experiences where you learn and grow don’t have to be full-time, long-term, or even paid work. If you have these types of experience, you have supervisors, volunteer coordinators, or clients that you can reach out to for a recommendation.

Ideally, people in this category will be relevant and credible. For example, if you’re trying to land an entry-level marketing job and, as a college intern, you reported to the Marketing Manager, it’s a no-brainer to choose that person as a great reference option.

On the other hand, the neighbor you once did some yard work for won’t be quite as compelling a reference. Only use them for a personal reference as a last resort.

Here is what career expert, Felicia, advises:

“Hiring managers want to know how well you work AND how you work with others. Getting references from a variety of sources can solidify who you are in the hiring process.”

You want most of your references to focus on your professional attributes. However, you don’t have to rule out references that can speak about your other abilities, such as teamwork, organization, and hard/soft skills, that are mentioned on your resume.

3. Do employers really need references?

There are certain situations that don’t always require job references:

  • Jobs you were referred to

  • Certain entry-level positions

  • Companies with limited hiring resources

When you get recommended for a job by someone at the company, you can sometimes bypass the reference requirement as you’ve already been vouched for. Here is how to ask for a job referral, including templates to use for emails and LinkedIn messages.

Some companies hiring for entry-level jobs understand that entry-level candidates may not have any useful references. Sometimes you can identify these jobs by looking for a “no references required” note on the job description. Other times, you just won’t be asked for references at any point. In either case, it’s still a good idea to have a professional reference page available, just in case.

Finally, some companies simply don’t have the capacity to check references. It might be a start-up or a small business with just one person who covers all the hiring, HR, operations, and accounting responsibilities.

4. Ask people to recommend you on LinkedIn

The easiest way to get people to write you a recommendation on LinkedIn is to write them a great recommendation first! LinkedIn recommendations appear on your profile, both the ones you send and the ones you receive. You should reference specific group projects or skills to give your recommendation context (and credibility). Aim to write a few thoughtful recommendations for your coworkers or recent classmates and then follow up with a message asking for one in return.

Most potential employers will look at your online presence before inviting you for an interview, so LinkedIn is a great tool to leverage! LinkedIn recommendations are useful to employers because they give a greater insight into what other people think of you. That’s the basic idea of a professional reference, too! If you have several good recommendations on your LinkedIn, employers may be satisfied with that information alone and not waste time in seeking out any more. 

Expert Tip

Check out the 5 top tips from our experts on how to apply for jobs online using your LinkedIn profile and your resume.

5. Answer questions proactively in your resume, cover letter, and during the interview

Although not guaranteed, having a well-written resume and cover letter could convince a hiring manager to offer you the job straight away. If you can wow them during the interview as well, asking for references may be redundant.

Go get that job!

Although it’s not easy for everyone to obtain professional references, utilize the tips above to help. If you find that it’s impossible to come up with references, submit your application anyway. Then be ready to explain why you can’t provide references (but only if the hiring manager asks first!).

Best of luck as you continue with your job search!

Take heart, even if you have no references for a job. As the article spells out, there are ways and means around this. Check out our free resume review and see where it takes you!

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Written by

ZipJob Team

The ZipJob team is made up of professional writers located across the USA and Canada with backgrounds in HR, recruiting, career coaching, job placement, and professional writing.

Elizabeth Openshaw

Written by

Elizabeth Openshaw, Editor & Content Writer, Elizabeth Openshaw, Editor & Content Writer

Elizabeth Openshaw is an Elite CV Consultant with over 12 years of experience based in Brighton, UK, with an English degree and an addiction to Wordle! She is a former Journalist of 17 years with the claim to fame that she interviewed three times Grand Slam winner and former World No.1 tennis player, Andy Murray, when he was just 14 years old. You can connect with her at Elizabeth Openshaw | LinkedIn.

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