What would you say is the most important part of the job application process? It’s likely that you’re thinking about the resume or the CV – perhaps thinking it’s the interview you must nail to get the job. While these are all important aspects of the application process, you might be overlooking an important part of the process: the references.

This can be a big mistake –The Society for Human Resource Management found in a study that references are in the top three of selection strategies used by hiring managers when selecting suitable candidates for different roles. If you don’t get your references together in a properly fashion, you might be hindering your chances of landing that dream job.

In this guide, we’ll examine how to create a reference list, select the right references, nurture those reference relationships and ask the question the right way. In the end, we’ll give a few tips on what to do after you’ve had people agree to act as a reference.


In an ideal world, you should have organised your references together well before you started job searching. You never know when you might be looking for a new role and it can help to have this thing sorted out – it’ll take off a tiny bit of the stress away that comes from hunting for a new role. It’s a good idea to have a list of references ready for when you need them. If you are just starting your job search, then sort out the references before you move on. It’ll help you deal with everything else later down the line.

The idea is to have a list of references – perhaps as an Excel spreadsheet or a Word-file, or you can use these LiveCareer.com templates – that you can keep updating as you move from one role to another and gain more experience. You can check the list every six months to ensure you always have relevant names listed and perhaps move around those who might not make a good reference any longer (more on a good reference in the next section). This overall reference list can have six to ten names at any time.

You can then use the list to compile the reference list to give to a potential employer during the job hunt. This should be a basic document, separate from your resume and CV – with similar formatting – which you will hand out to the hiring manager when they ask for it.

In this file, you will need to present the names of three to four references. The information you want to include is:

Information about the reference
  • Name
  • Job title
  • Employer/business
  • Contact information
The connection
  • A short description of the link between you and the reference
An example
  • Jane Smith, IT Manager
    Company XYZ
    Dream Town
    123 987 654
    Relationship: Former team manager (2012-2016)

This document shouldn’t stay stagnant either. As we’ll discuss in the next section, different connections make good references at different times. It’s important to pick the references in your list based on the role you are applying for.

So don’t treat a reference list like the ultimate truth – keep updating it and tweaking it each time you are applying for a role and in between applications.


Who you choose as your reference can make a big difference. It’s important to avoid just listing anyone you know and using random people as the reference. The hiring manager will read between the lines when it comes to evaluating you’ve chosen as a reference – your best friend from high school might talk nice things about you but it just isn’t as good of a recommendation as your ex-boss’.

So, who are the best people to ask to be your references? These are:

  • Former or current bosses and managers
  • Your co-workers
  • Your current or previous clients
  • Vendors and third-party providers you’ve worked with closely
  • Your academic connections such as professors and tutors

These people are good because they know your skills and professional talent the best. You are looking for a job and all the above can have something to say about your work ethic and talent.

If you are struggling to find references in the above categories, it is possible to get a character or personal references. This type of reference won’t focus on your professional skills and achievements quite as extensively but it will talk more about your other characteristics and the kind of person you are.

These can come from a friend but you ideally want to pick someone with a reputable position and strong connection to you. If you’ve volunteered or been part of another non-work organisation, you could use someone you know from these groups. It could also be a spiritual leader or a sports coach, for example.

Are there people that don’t make a good reference? Well, you shouldn’t ever ask a family member to be your reference – even if it’s a character reference. You should also remember that your reference doesn’t have to be your current employer or a colleague. Indeed, you probably don’t want to do this if they are unaware of your job hunting. But in any case, the reference doesn’t have to be the most current professional connection.

So, you have an idea on who to ask now. But it’s also important to not just pick a reference from one of the above groups. You also want to pick a good reference – but what is a good reference? You definitely want to use the below tips in mind when choosing your references during your job search.

The qualities of a good reference

  • The person is someone who has strong links to you and who is capable of evaluating your skills and character. A good example would be a work colleague that worked on the same team/department. A bad example would be a manager in your organisation but who wasn’t your supervisor.
  • The person is someone who would give honest and positive feedback. You want the person to be someone who you know won’t make things up and who is able to present you in a positive but authentic light.
  • The person has a positive social media profile. In today’s world, you also have to be mindful of the person’s own characteristic and especially social media profile. Do check that it isn’t full of party photos or hateful language or your hiring manager might question your judgement!

It’s always a good idea to have a chat with the person beforehand and openly discuss the things they might be saying. You don’t want it to come as a surprise that they actually didn’t think you were a good employee and gave a negative reference. Remember that just because someone agrees to be a reference doesn’t mean they agree to give a positive recommendation. If you have any doubts, just talk to the person!

Furthermore, you should focus on matching the person’s knowledge of you with the job you are applying for. Just as you should tailor your resume to match your skills with the job requirements, you also want to choose a reference that has the most relevant knowledge regarding those skills. What this means is thinking how well the person could present those skills the new employer is looking for.

If you are applying for a role that requires many research skills, your university professor might be better at highlighting your analytical skills than your boss at the local coffee shop, for example. On the other hand, if you are looking for a job that requires good customer service then the manager at the coffee shop would have more to say about your skills in this particular area than a professor at the university.

You need to keep one more important thing in mind when getting your references together for the job search. You need to understand different company reference policies. Certain companies have policies in place, which prevent managers from talking to other employers. Instead, you might need to get the HR department to provide you with an official reference.

Therefore, you must check and ask the person to check the company policy to ensure they aren’t in breach of their employment contract.


If you want to ensure you have a good selection of possible references available and that the reference you get is positive, you need to pay attention to your relationship with these people. It’s important to keep good relationships with people at work and at studies – you never know when you’ll need their help in life. It might sound obvious but in today’s world, we could all do with a little reminder that kindness goes along way.

Now, treating people well is not just important in terms of your references. You never want to burn bridges with the people you work with. Why? Because the hiring manager might contact people outside of your reference list – there is no rule against this. In the era of social media, it doesn’t take a lot to find people you’ve might have worked with and ex-bosses to call. If you are rude to people, it might backfire and prevent you from getting the dream job. So, be nice!

So, when you are working with people, always be nice and helpful. Be the person in the workplace who is willing to help others and to ensure they are doing well. Of course, if you have a reference in mind, you definitely want to be extra nice to them and help them see your value in the workplace. But overall, be the good guy and not the workplace monster.

When you pick people on to your reference list, you don’t just want to add them there and then passively wait for the occasion. You want to stay in touch with these people for two reasons. First, networking can always be helpful and maintaining a positive relationship is likely to ensure you get a positive reference from the person.

But there’s another important and practical reason, too. By staying in touch, you have the opportunity to fill them in on achievements in the workplace – you can update them on your professional success, which, in turn, will help them write a more accurate reference. They will be aware of your successes and they can mention relevant information without it sounding unnatural.


The above has probably given you plenty of ideas in terms of references. Perhaps you’ve already compiled the perfect list of references in your head and you’re thinking of going and typing them into an official file to give to the hiring manager.

But wait. You can’t just use someone as a reference without telling him or her about your plans. Indeed, you need to ask a permission to use someone as a reference first.

So, how do you go about asking someone to be your reference? You could:

Organise a catch-up meeting for popping up the questions.
  • Benefits from being personal – you see an instant reaction from the person and the connection feels more personal.
  • Provides you with an opportunity to go over your career goals there and then – you can give them a recap of your achievements and prepare them for providing the right feedback.
Write them an email or give them a call.
  • You can outline your career goals and offer to discuss the matter further in person or over the phone.
  • This is not as personal but often the most practical solution.

When you are popping the question, you need to be polite and make the person feel comfortable even if they want to say ‘no’. In fact, it’s important to understand the reason behind a ‘no’ – these are not always personal and because the person doesn’t like you.

Several things, such as company policy, may prevent certain people from providing references. However, you also want to understand if the reason is personal – it might be painful but it is important to understand why the person doesn’t feel like acting as your reference because it can help you grow as an employee.

As you make the question and hopefully receive a positive response, you need to remember what you are looking for from the reference. You need to make sure you have their up-to-date contact information to include in your reference list.

You also want to ask what their preferred method of contact would be – you can then include this information in the document you hand to the hiring manager. Furthermore, if your job hunt is a bit of a secret at this point, request confidentiality. You don’t want them to accidentally let your boss know you are looking for a job elsewhere.

Remember it isn’t just about what the reference can do for you at this point. You can also make their life a little easier and ensure your chances of getting a top-notch recommendation. You should help the reference out by:

  • Sending them your resume (the one you are using in the job hunt!) and your CV.
  • Send them information about the job you are applying for – including the job posting and any other relevant information you think might help them with the recommendation.
  • Provide them with a list of possible questions the employer might ask, especially if you know they’ve never been anyone’s reference.

Don’t forget to offer your services – you want to ensure the person is also comfortable asking you to be their reference or to provide any other help if they need it. Of course, you don’t want to offer to be a reference to someone who is definitely higher than you on the career ladder (your professor or the company boss). But you should still help them in case they need anything.


It’s important to avoid overwhelming or burdening the people you’ve asked to be your reference. You need to remember that writing reference letters or being interviewed by hiring manager takes time and it isn’t something the person is compensated for.

This means that you shouldn’t use the same references all the time. Indeed, it’s a good idea to use a single reference around four times and then move onto others, unless the person is important for the specific role.

You also need to remember to be courteous and respect the person’s decision (whatever it may be). Just because you asked the person to be a reference doesn’t mean they will always want to be one. You should add a person to your possible reference list when you’ve asked them.

But remember to ask the permission each time you use their information during a job hunt. So, if you asked Person A to be a reference for Job B and you are now thinking of using Person A also as reference in Job C, you need to ask for the permission.

This is not only respectful and courteous but it naturally helps them to prepare for the situation, as mentioned above. It’s important for the reference to know the kind of job you are applying for to ensure they can provide the most fitting feedback on your skills.

Remember to thank the person after they’ve agreed to be a reference and after your job application process is over. You should send a thank you note or an email thanking the person for helping you during the process. Do this whether or not you get the job. You also want to offer to help them out in the future. It’ll all be part of the process of networking and nurturing your professional relations.


The bottom line is to get your reference list sorted as soon as possible, whether you are looking for a job now. A good reference relationship is something that’s forged well before they are contacted for an opinion about you – you need to nurture your professional relationships to ensure you won’t find it difficult to receive a positive reference.

Therefore, you want to stay professional with people around you and keep a list of possible references whether you are job hunting now or in the future. Ask the person politely and provide enough information for them to make a good case of why you should be hired.

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