The Right Way to Include References in Your Resume

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Ken Chase, Freelance Writer

11 min read

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While your resume and job interview performance can help increase your chances of landing a great employment opportunity, you may also need to provide some compelling resume references to seal the deal. Of course, to ensure that your references make the right kind of impression, you need to understand why employers want to contact them, and what they hope to learn.

In this post, we’ll offer some insight into why employers may ask for your resume references. We’ll also help you identify the best professional references for your job search needs and provide some tips so you’ll know the right way to include references in your resume.

What are professional references?

A professional reference is written by someone who can vouch for you and your standard of work. This often includes:

  • Your performance at work

  • Your strengths and weaknesses

  • Your work ethic and integrity

  • How you work with colleagues and management

  • They can also confirm that you worked at a company when you said you did

A prospective employer contacts your references to get an overview of you as a professional. They are usually asked to verify that they worked with you, the dates you worked for them, and any other relevant information. Checking your resume references can often be the last step taken by a company before making you a job offer.

Think of it like a review for a product or service. You’ve found the product, it looks decent, and you’re seriously considering whether to purchase it or not. So, what do you do just before entering your credit card info? You check the reviews to ensure you’re receiving a quality product.

It’s the same when an employer is looking to hire someone. They check your professional references to ensure you’ll make a good hire.

Over one-fourth of all employers reported that a bad hire can cost the company over $50,000. With that much hanging in the balance, employers really depend on references to vouch for you. For that reason, it’s imperative that you choose the right people from your network for the job – those who’ll sing your praises without going overboard.

Resume references: examples of professional references

1. Your boss or manager

The best professional reference is a former boss, or even a current manager if they know you’re looking to move elsewhere. It’s safe to say that a hiring manager will trust your former or current boss over any other professional reference, as they’re normally able to provide an unbiased review of you and your work ethic.

You should contact your boss and ask if you can put them down as a reference. One thing you should keep in mind, however, is to ensure that your reference is articulate, will speak about you and your standard of work positively, and is willing to be a reference.

So only ask your boss or line manager if you’ve forged a good relationship with them over the course of your time in the role. You wouldn’t, of course, ask a boss you didn’t have a good relationship with or one who’d fired you.

To help you further, we’ve put together an informative professional reference template you can use when asking for a reference.

2. Colleagues

The next best option is a current or former co-worker. If you have a few different colleagues to choose from, pick those who have a higher position or title than you. For example, if you had to choose between a junior accountant and a senior tax adviser, it would be wise to choose the senior tax advisor. A prospective employer will get more useful information from someone in a position above you.

Don’t forget that you need to pick someone who can speak professionally about your skills and qualifications. 

3. Professors

A professor is a great reference to secure, especially if you’ve recently graduated or have little work experience. However, their value as resume references will diminish as you progress in your career. They might struggle to remember your qualities from those years ago.

4. Clients and mentors

If you’re a freelancer and work with lots of different clients, then a relevant reference from one of them is perfect. If you include a client from some freelance work you’ve taken on, ensure they are from a professional company. For example, if you’re a web developer, you could include the name of the founder of a start-up for which you did some programming work.

If you don’t have much work experience, you may also want to consider including a reference from any internship position you’ve held – especially if they mentored and encouraged you throughout the process.

Resume references: examples of personal references

Personal references are from people you haven’t worked with but who know your character, values, and goals. It’s advisable to choose people you’ve known for at least a year, as they can provide a more comprehensive and detailed overview of you as a person. These types of references can be especially helpful when you have little or no professional experience.

1. Well-known professionals

If you know someone with a great reputation in the industry you’re moving into, or one with a prestigious title, you can list them as a personal reference. For example, listing a CEO who knows about you and your professional life is a good reference. Ensure they have enough knowledge about you to give a thorough reference that puts you in a good light.

2. Volunteering

You can include a reference from any volunteer work that you’ve undertaken. These references can often provide useful insight into your personal traits, as well as any skills you’ve acquired during your stint as a volunteer.

People you shouldn’t use for a reference

1. Friends and family members

If you’ve ever wondered if a professional reference can be a friend, the answer is, “No, it’s not a good idea.” Friends and family members certainly do not make good references for a job application, so you should never include someone from this group.

2. Fake references

Don’t persuade your cousin Vinny to act like he’s the CEO of some bogus company. Hiring managers speak to tons of references all the time and can easily spot a fake reference from a real one. Save yourself the embarrassment and the possibility of ruining your reputation forever by avoiding this at all costs.

3. People who may speak negatively about you 

You shouldn’t list someone who may say something negative. You should already know if your reference will speak about you positively, but if you want to make sure, reach out to them and ask before listing them.

4. Irrelevant references

Here is where many job seekers go wrong; listing someone completely irrelevant will do you more harm than good. But what do we mean by irrelevant? For example, listing someone you babysat for 10 years ago when you’re applying for a financial analyst position is irrelevant.

Often people try to make up references if they have no professional references to draw from. If you really don’t have anyone, check out our post on other alternatives to when you don’t have any references.

How to ask someone for a reference

It’s imperative to ensure that the people you put down as references know that they’re on that list! You don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of a potential employer calling up a reference to be met with a baffled, “What’s this all about? I didn’t know Tyler was even looking for another job!”

To avoid that situation, make sure that you reach out to potential references to ask them if they’re willing to serve in that role. That will give them time to mull over what they would say about you or turn the request down if they don’t feel comfortable doing it or don’t have the time.

They might be someone you asked a while ago, but it’s worth reminding them to expect a call or email anytime soon. Thank them in advance for doing this for you and keep them informed of your job search progress. By keeping them in the loop they’ll be more likely to help again when you need a reference for a new role. 

The right way to include references in your resume

You don’t. 

Yes, that’s right: you don’t want to list your references on your resume. Instead, you want to create a separate list that you can deliver to any employer who needs it.

So, once you’ve identified your resume references, it’s time to create a reference list that you can provide to employers upon request. 

“References available upon request”

Oh, and you shouldn’t include any mention of references in your resume. While some people may still write the words “references available upon request” at the bottom of their resumes, it’s really a waste of time. Employers will already assume that you’ll provide references if they ask for them.

With that said, let’s move on to some key tips that you can use to create your own resume reference list.

Decide how many references need to be on the list

You should typically include somewhere between three and five references in this list. Sometimes, employers will provide instructions regarding references, so follow those directives closely. For example, you may respond to a job posting that tells applicants to provide at least two solid references. If there are no specified instructions, focus on providing at least three reliable references in your list.

Identify the best references for your needs

Wherever possible, try to prioritize professional references over personal ones, especially those that have some relation to your industry. Remember, it is better to limit your list to three people who can be counted on to provide a good recommendation than four or five questionable references. Try to include only people who are familiar with your strengths and record of success.

Properly format your resume references: examples

Create a separate document for your resume references and put your name and contact information in a prominent place right at the top of the page. Add a title like “Professional References,” and then use the following format for each reference listing on the page:

[Reference Name]

[Reference Title/Position] [Reference Company] [Reference Address] [Reference Phone Number] [Reference Email] [Brief notes about relationship with reference]

Using that example format, here is how you would list John Jones as a reference:

John Jones Marketing Manager Apex Marketing 9999 Apex St Anytown, Anystate, 99999 555-555-5555

John was my direct report during my time as Project Manager at Apex from 2018 to 2023.

Deliver your resume references as instructed

With your resume references page completed, the next step is to deliver that document. There are a couple of ways to do that, depending on the instructions provided by the employer.

  • On some application forms, there is a space where you can provide details of your references. It normally includes their full name, job title, place of work, cell, and email address. Be sure to include your references in the application if requested to do so.

  • You should also take a professional references page with you to the interview, so that you have it available if the employer asks for it. Again, include the relevant details in this list so there are a variety of ways in which the hiring manager can contact all your professional references.

  • If the interviewer requests a digital copy, send it by email as soon as the interview is complete.

Follow up with your references

Finally, make sure that you contact each of your listed references to thank them for their assistance in your job search efforts. You can either call or email them, but make sure that you include a reminder that the employer may be contacting them within the next few days or weeks.

Be prepared – but don’t put references on your resume

You never know when an employer may want to see a list of your professional references, so it is always important to have that document prepared well in advance of any job search effort. That prior preparation can help to ensure that you have the recommendations you need to boost your hiring chances.

Best of luck with your job search.

Need help with your resume or your list of resume references? Reach out for your free resume review from our team of experts today!

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Written by

Ken Chase, Freelance Writer

During Ken's two decades as a freelance writer, he has covered everything from banking and fintech to business management and the entertainment industry. His true passion, however, has always been focused on helping others achieve their career goals with timely job search and interview advice or the occasional resume consultation. When he's not working, Ken can usually be found adventuring with family and friends or playing fetch with his demanding German Shepherd. Read more resume advice from Ken on ZipJob’s blog.

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