Professional References: What They Are and Who to Use

a picture of business person and 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 if 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:

  • Is a professional and can refer to you in a professional way (usually a professional from your previous employer).
  • Has some professional experience working with you.
  • Is willing to be a positive reference (not someone who will speak of you negatively).
  • Is someone who has a managerial job title or an important job title.
  • Is something who understands strengths and capabilities as a job seeker.

A bad reference is someone who:

  • You only have a personal relationship with and can’t speak to your work life.
  • You haven’t confirmed that they would like to be a reference for you.
  • Won’t be able to speak to your skills, qualities, or professional characteristics.
  • Is part of your current employer's team but doesn’t know you’re applying for other positions yet.

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. They may also 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 a career coach's career advice 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.

How to Provide References

When a prospective employer asks about professional references, here is what to do to provide them with the proper information.

Inform the reference

Speak with each professional reference and inform them that their information is being given out about a specific job. Remind them of the coaching that took place earlier in the process. This includes referencing strengths and core competencies that are desirable for the job function.

Inform each reference that an employer may contact them regarding a professional reference.

Create the list of references

Create a document that contains a list of references for the prospective employer. This should include details like the person's name, their professional job title, the company they work or worked for, their mailing address, email address, and phone number. It's helpful to include the relationship with the reference as well.

Relationship should include "Former Manager" or "Family Friend."

Keep the references updated

It's best to keep each reference informed on the hiring process. This way, if the reference was not called or emailed yet regarding the job opportunity, they can better be prepared. It's a nice courtesy as well, considering that each reference is assisting the candidate is trying to find job placement.

Professional Reference Mistakes

Avoid these common mistakes when finding, asking, and listing professional references.

Asking close friends

Close friends may be helpful for some reference requirements. But in most cases, a potential employer will be seeking the information of professionals who have worked with the candidate in the past. These professionals are going to have more insight into the professional's abilities and capabilities on the job.

If too many "close friends" or "family friends" are listed as references, this doesn't provide the hiring manager and prospective employer with the right opportunity to ask questions that can be assistive in the hiring process and lead to a hiring decision.

Having too many references

It's a common mistake to list 10+ references on the references sheet. A job seeker and job applicant should list the most recent five references. The list should be sorted chronologically, with the most respected individual at the top of the list.

The reason the list is sorted in this fashion is, so the hiring manager has a clear sense of "who to call" if they have questions. And who the most respected professional is that has worked with the candidate in the past.

Putting references on the resume or cover letter

References should always be included as their own document. Trying to put references in the one-page resume or the one-page cover letter is an entry-level mistake. A professional reference list and sheet should be a separate document included in the job application. Or provided to the employer when they ask. If providing the references to a prospective employer in advance, three documents will be included in the job application: the cover letter, the resume, and the references list.

Using "poor" references

Don't put names down of professionals who don't believe in the job or the job candidate. Professional references need to be people who will speak highly of another. Listing a prestigious name on the reference list might sound like a great idea. But if that person doesn't have a good relationship with the job seeker, the whole purpose of the reference can fall apart.

A "good reference" should be a respected professional who knows the job candidate by name and has worked with them in the past. This way, they can better vouch for their professional abilities, character, traits, core competencies, and more.

Profesional References Format

Below is a simple format for presenting professional references in their own reference list.

References List

Job Title
Phone Number
Professional Relationship
Dates Worked Together

Repeat as necessary

References Resources

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW), NCDA Certified Career Counselor (CCC), and general career expert. Patrick has completed the NACE Coaching Certification Program (CCP). And has been published as a career expert on Forbes, Glassdoor, American Express, Reader's Digest, LiveCareer, Zety, Yahoo,, SparkHire,,, FairyGodBoss,, St. Edwards University, NC State University,, Thrive Global,, Work It Daily, Workology, Career Guide, MyPerfectResume, College Career Life, The HR Digest, WorkWise, Career Cast, Elite Staffing, Women in HR, All About Careers, Upstart HR, The Street, Monster, The Ladders, Introvert Whisperer, and many more. Find him on LinkedIn.

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