Once you've applied for some jobs and completed some interviews, a potential employer is probably going to ask for your references. References can make or break for your job application at this point--so what are your options if you don't have any prepared?
There are many reasons you don't have any professional references. If you're new to the workforce, you probably haven't had the time to establish relationships. Or you may be new to the country, so your references may be too hard to contact due to language or time zone barriers. Alternatively, you may have had some bad experiences with your former supervisors!
Whatever your reason is for not having good references, our team of career experts and former hiring managers have 5 tips to help you out.
What to do if you don't have professional references:
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 try to identify some people who A. know you and B. could 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. 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.
Felicia Tatum, CPRW, CEIP
If you’ve never held a job before, you obviously won't have any connections who have supervised you at work. However, you might be connected with one of your college professors who can speak to your skills and work ethic. If you're a recent graduate, this is a perfectly valid option for a character reference!
Meanwhile, 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 your current coworkers in a stealth job search, however; you might be putting them in an awkward position.
Here are some templates you can use 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! Not all good experience is full time, long term, or even paid. If you have these types of experience, you have supervisors, volunteer coordinators, or clients you can reach out to for a recommendation.
Ideally, people of this category will be both relevant and credible. For example, if you're now trying to land an entry-level marketing job and your college internship reported to a Marketing Manager, that person would be a great reference option.
On the other hand, your neighbor you once did some yard work for won't be as compelling to a hiring manager. Use that personal reference only 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 be about 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 and soft skills mentioned on your resume.
3. Do you really need references?
There are some 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 sometimes bypass the reference requirement: someone has already vouched for you. 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. This might be a startup, or a small business that has one person for hiring, HR, operations, and accounting.
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 for you online before inviting you for a job interview, so LinkedIn is a great tool to leverage! LinkedIn recommendations are useful to employers because they often give insight to 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 the information and not seek out more.
check out our expert's 5 top tips on how to apply for jobs online using your LinkedIn profile and your resume.
5. Answer questions proactively in your resume, cover letter, and interview
Although not a guarantee, having a well-written resume and cover letter could convince a hiring manager to interview you right away. If you can wow the hiring manager in the interview as well, asking for references may be redundant.
Here is a post about exactly what employers ask your references. If you can satisfy an employer's curiosity, you might not need to provide references.
Pro tip: another way you can incorporate feedback on your resume or cover letter is to include a section for recommendations and reviews on your resume.
Although it's not easy for everyone to obtain professional references, you can utilize the tips above to find, or substitute references. If it's impossible to come up with references, you should submit your application anyway. Be ready to explain why you can't provide references (but only if the hiring manager asks first!).
Good luck with your job search!
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.