Professional References: What They Are and Who to Use as a Reference

Madison Baker  | 

If you’ve ever been on the hunt for a job, chances are you’ve been asked to provide “professional references.” Nowadays, professional references are a fairly standard part of most job applications, and many employers will require you to submit them along with your resume, cover letter, and other application materials.

Simply put, a professional reference is someone who can vouch for your qualifications, skills, and abilities in the workplace. But you can’t — and shouldn’t —  use just anyone as a reference. Though your references likely aren’t as important as presenting a strong resume or acing your interview, these people can still impact whether or not you get the job you applied for, and you don’t want to leave that up to chance. Here’s what you need to know about professional references, and how to pick the best people for the job.

What Is a Personal Reference?

Before diving into how to pick a good professional reference, you should also be familiar with the term “personal reference.” The two terms are similar but they’re not the same, and you can’t use them interchangeably — even though some employers might ask you for personal references.

A personal reference is someone who can vouch for your character and abilities. Unlike professional references, you don’t have to have worked with someone in a professional setting to use them as a personal reference. In fact, you can use whoever you like as a personal reference, including your friends, family members, or acquaintances. Typically, the only people you can’t use as a personal reference are your immediate family members or romantic partner, as they’re generally believed to be too biased in your favor to give you a fair and honest assessment.

Personal vs. Professional References

Personal and professional references are very different. When it comes to job applications, professional references are almost always better than personal ones. If an employer doesn’t specify which type they’d prefer, you should definitely give them your professional references. If you’re unsure which type of reference to give, you can always ask them to clarify.

However, there are a few situations where it’s appropriate to provide personal references when applying to jobs, such as if you change careers or industries, particularly if you do so later in life. If you’re looking for a job but have no professional experience, you have no choice but to use personal references. And if the hiring manager specifically asks for personal references or wants a mix of both, you should be sure to follow their instructions.

Who Should You Use as a Reference?

Current colleagues or supervisors, former employers or coworkers, clients, vendors, HR managers or team members — anyone that you’ve worked with, regardless of their role, can be a professional reference.

However, just because you worked with someone doesn’t mean you should ask them to be a reference. Recent research indicates that roughly 80% of employers do actually call a candidate’s references at some point during the hiring process. That means it’s crucial to choose your professional references carefully and strategically.

What Makes a Good Reference?

There are a few different factors that make someone a good professional reference. Of course, you have to have worked at the same place, but you should choose someone who you’ve worked with closely. Direct supervisors and managers are often a good choice, as they know what you do well and what you could do better, but coworkers you frequently collaborated with or people you’ve supervised can also be fitting in the right circumstances.

Generally, the longer you’ve worked with someone, the better. Someone who’s worked with you for two or three years will have a much different understanding of your work than someone you’ve known for six months. They need to be familiar with your work, strengths, areas for growth, and your achievements. In other words, they need to actually know you and how you work.

In addition, these people will be speaking to strangers who are specifically looking for reasons they shouldn’t hire you, so your references must be able to speak about you positively. Of course, they should answer the employer’s reference check questions as honestly as possible, but they must be able to discuss your flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes with respect and courtesy. You want to be sure your references will be honest and open, but still give you a glowing review to any potential employers.

How Many References Do You Need?

The number of references you actually need can vary from posting to posting, but you’ll usually need to provide three professional references. Some employers may ask for more, and others less; some may not ask you to include references in your application materials at all. It depends on the organization. It helps to have a pool of different references to pull from. That way, you can put down the individuals whose experience with and view of you best aligns with the specific position you’re applying for.

In addition, always be sure to provide the number of references that the hiring manager or job application requests. If they don’t request references at all, it’s still a good idea to include them anyway, unless specifically instructed otherwise. Your references are another tool you have in your arsenal that can help you get a job, and you should always take advantage of that opportunity when possible. The wrong reference may prevent you from securing your dream job, but the right one might just tip the scales in your favor.


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