Professional References and The 4 Best People to Use

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ZipJob Team

6 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 is a professional reference? 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 the best people to use.

What is a Professional Reference?

A professional reference is someone your employer contacts who can vouch for you. They're usually asked to verify that they worked with you and the information you gave them in your resume/interview.

Usually the last step before a company makes an offer is checking your professional references. Think of it as online reviews for a product or service.

You found the product, it looks pretty decent and you’re almost ready to buy. What do you do right before you put in your credit card info? You usually check the reviews to ensure you’re receiving a quality product. It’s pretty much the same for an employer looking to hire someone, they check your professional references to ensure you make a good hire.

Almost a third of employers reported that a bad hire will cost the company over $50,000. With that much hanging on the line, employers really depend on references to vouch for you. For that reason, you need to ensure you use the right references.

Who to Use as a Reference?

1. Boss or manager

The best professional reference is a former (or current) boss or manager. A hiring manager trusts your former boss over any other reference as they're usually able to provide an unbiased review of you and your work ethic.

You should really reach out to your boss and ask if you can use them as a reference. We put together a good template you can use when asking others to be a reference.

One thing you should keep in mind is to ensure that whoever you’re listing is well-spoken, willing to. be a reference, and will speak of you positively. You, of course, wouldn’t list a boss who you didn’t get along with or one who fired you.

2. Colleagues

The next best thing to listing a boss is a former or current colleague. If you have a few different colleagues to list, pick those with a higher position and title. If you had to choose between a junior accountant and a senior tax adviser, you would of course go with the senior.

Also, as mentioned above, you want to pick someone who will speak highly of you and one who’s a great communicator. You don’t want your reference to be shy as they may have trouble articulating all your awesome qualities.

3. Professors

A professor is an awesome reference to have, especially if you’ve recently graduated or don’t have much work experience. However, if you graduated college over 10 years ago, your professors probably won't be particularly good references.

4. Other well-known professionals

If you know someone who’s well known in the industry, or has a prestigious title, you can list them as a reference even though you haven’t worked with them. Make sure they can speak about you professionally as you don’t want to list someone who’s just going to say, “he’s a great guy” or “she’s wonderful.”

For example, listing a CEO who knows about you and your professional life is a good reference. Of course, this should be the last reference you include, try to include the most relevant references like a boss or colleague first.

5. Volunteer, Internships and Freelance Work

You can include a reference from volunteer and internship positions as well as clientele from freelance work. This is especially helpful for those who don’t have much work experience.

If you include a client from freelance work you performed, ensure that they're a professional company and relevant. For example, a web developer who lists a founder of a startup he did some programming work for is a good example.

So, to recap on the best people to use as a reference:

Best People to use as a reference

People You Shouldn't Use as a Reference

1. Friends and Family Members

Friends and family members don't make good references for a job application. Unless the employer asks for a personal reference, you should never include someone from this group. Just think about it: the hiring manager wants some unbiased feedback about you and your professional life and a friend or family member is the worst person to get that from.

Don't think an employer will be fooled by this, either. It becomes really obvious after a short conversation if your reference has actually worked with you in a professional setting or not.

You could include a colleague who you were friendly with, but just including a friend or family member who’s never worked with you will make you look unprofessional.

2. Fake References

Don’t tell your cousin Vinny to act like he’s the CEO of some bogus company. Hiring managers speak to tons of references and can usually tell a fake reference from a real one. Save yourself the embarrassment and possibility of ruining your reputation.

3. People Who May Speak Negatively

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

4. Irrelevant References

Here is where many job seekers go wrong: listing someone completely irrelevant will do you more harm than good. What do we mean by irrelevant?

Listing someone for who you worked as a babysitter 10 years ago when you’re applying for a financial analyst position is irrelevant. If you don’t have anyone else, we wrote a great post you may want to check out on other alternatives to when you don’t have any references.


So, to recap, here are the types of references you shouldn't include:

Who you shouldnt use as a reference

Having professional references who are ready to put in a good word for you is super important. Remember not to list your references on a resume, but to have a reference page template ready if the employer asks.

Good luck with your job search!

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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.

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