Professional References and The 4 Best People to Use

Elizabeth Openshaw
Elizabeth Openshaw

10 min read

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So, you got the interview and you think you did pretty well. Now what? Well, they’ll usually ask you for professional references. What are professional references? Who should you use as a reference? 

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ll show you what a professional reference is and show you who are the best people to use.

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, and to 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 professional references is usually the last step taken by a company before making you a job offer.

Think of it along the lines of a review for a product or service. Try before you buy, so to speak. You’ve found the product, it looks pretty decent, and you’re teetering on the edge of 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 pretty much the same as an employer 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 professionally sing your praises without going overboard.

Who to use to write a professional reference?

1. Your boss or manager

The best professional reference is a former, or current, boss or manager, if they know you’re looking to move elsewhere. It’s safe to say that a hiring manager will trust your former boss over any other professional reference, as they’re usually 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 whoever you’re listing is articulate, will speak about you and your standard of work positively, and is actually 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 who you didn’t get along with or one who’d fired you.

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

2. Colleagues

The next best thing to listing your boss is a current or former workmate. 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. Your professors probably won't be good references as you’ve moved on. 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, you could be a web developer who lists the founder of a start-up for which you did some programming work.

Especially helpful for those of you who don’t have much work experience, a reference from someone where you did an internship is useful, and more so if they mentored and encouraged you throughout the process.

Who to use as a personal reference?

Many people ask about professional vs personal references. Someone acting as a personal reference for you is slightly different than a professional reference and is perfect if you have little or no work experience, or have just finished your education. Personal references are from people you haven’t worked with but 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.

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 referee. 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 volunteering work that you’ve undertaken. These can be advantageous as they can comment on your personal aspects, as well as any skills you’ve acquired from doing the voluntary work.

So, to recap on the best people to use for both professional and personal references:

Best People to use as a reference

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. Consider this: the hiring manager wants unbiased feedback about you and your professional life. A friend or family member is the worst person to get that from, as they won’t be unbiased.

And don’t think an employer will be fooled if you do choose family or a friend. It becomes really obvious after a short conversation if the reference you’ve put forward has actually worked with you in a professional setting or not.

You can put down a colleague who you were friendly with, but just including a friend or family member who you’ve never worked with will make you look very unprofessional.

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 might not be that kind about you or 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.

Asking 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!”

So tell them you’re hoping they will provide a reference for you, and ask if they would be so kind as to oblige. 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, and if you land the role or not. By keeping them in the loop they’ll be more likely to help again when you need a reference for a new role. 

How to list professional references

First off, and as a general rule, don’t list professional references on your resume. There are exceptions, of course, as with everything. There’s no need nowadays to even state, “references are available upon request” at the bottom of the document. Once you’ve landed an interview, that is the time in the recruitment process when references are required.

How to list them largely depends on what the application process involves. You need to provide up to three referees, in general, or follow the guidelines set out for you by the company you’re applying to.

There are a few ways in which you can provide professional references so check out the list below:

  • 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.

  • If this isn’t the case, you can take a professional references page with you to the interview, to hand in once you’ve finished. Again, include the relevant details in this list so there are a variety of ways in which the hiring manager can contact all of your professional references.

  • The employer might ask for a reference letter or send an email which has a link to a reference form. If that’s the case, the chances are that your reference will send the reference about you straight to the company, so you won’t get to peruse it beforehand.


Having professional references written by people who are keen to put in a good word for you is super important, so choose wisely. Remember not to list your references on a resume, but to have a reference page template ready for when the employer asks.

Best of luck with your job search.

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Elizabeth Openshaw

Written by

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

Elizabeth Openshaw is an Elite CV Consultant of 11 years 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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