Professional References: What They Are, Who They Are, and More [2020]

professional references

A professional reference is a former employer, manager, or boss that your prospective or potential employer can contact if they need to validate the information contained within a job applicant's resume, cover letter, or job application. Professional references are sometimes referred to as a job reference and in common cases, don’t contain a personal reference of any kind.

The difference between a personal reference and a professional reference is that professional references only include your past employer list. This list is sometimes referred to as a reference list, reference sheet, reference page, professional reference list, or other. This is a contact list that your prospective employer can use in the event they need validation or further information about your previous employment history.

In personal circumstances, like when purchasing a home or during court proceedings, these references are referred to as a character reference. And are not used in professional scenarios.

A job seeker should consider building a healthy list of references as well as having those references write a reference letter for their job search. These can be highly impactful tools to increase your chances of receiving a job interview or job offer.

What is a Professional Reference

A professional reference is a former employee, former colleague, former boss, former supervisor, or another person you performed work with that can validate mentions you may have made in your resume, cover letter, or job application details. These professionals are those who will be able to speak to qualities, skills, assets, and achievements that you’ve made throughout your work career and work history with them.

Who to Use as a Reference

A good reference is someone who:

A bad reference is someone who:

Whenever possible, resigning from a company with professionalism can help to ensure you can ask your supervisor or boss to be a potential reference for you. In addition, they may be willing to provide you a positive recommendation letter that you can use for a new job or general employment needs in the future.

Tip: You’ll know when your hiring manager or prospective employer will be contacting someone from your reference list because they may inform you that they’ll be performing a “reference check”. This means they’ll be communicating with someone from your reference list.

Coaching Your References

It’s important to list only professionals that you’ve asked to be referenced on your reference list. When your new employer decides they want to speak with someone from your references list, you’ll have the opportunity to connect with your reference and explain to them the qualities you hope they can speak to when they talk with your hiring manager.

This simple coaching technique can ensure that your reference aligns your intentions and goals with your cover letter and resume. It can be helpful to send your reference a copy of your cover letter and resume so they can gain insight into how you’re positioning yourself professionally and assist you properly.

Tip: Before leaving your current position, you should ask your manager if they’d be willing to be a prospective reference for you. Be sure to speak with them directly about the opportunity and have their permission to be listed on your reference sheet.

How Many References to List

A list of strong professional references can certainly help your potential employer. Job seekers who have a unique employment history should seek the career advice of a career coach to help determine who to refer to in their references list. Having anywhere from three to five recent references is the ideal number for hiring managers.

References Resources

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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