How To Choose the Best Job References

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One of the most important tasks when job hunting is rounding up references who can attest to your qualifications and abilities to do a job. Your references can help you make a compelling case as to why you’re the best candidate for the job, but a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement can knock you off an employer's list of candidates.


Tip: A strong recommendation from the right reference can convince an employer that you have the right skills and experience to excel in the job.

Review tips on whom to ask for a reference, how to ask, which of your references to use depending on the role you're applying for, and how to be sure that your references are giving you a strong recommendation.

Key Takeaways

  • There are different types of references you can use when applying for a job, including academic, employment, personal, and professional references.
  • The references you choose should be able to speak to the skills, abilities, qualifications, and other assets that qualify you for a position.
  • Create a list of three or four references you can use when you apply.

Types of References You Can Use 

When you’re job hunting, there are several different types of references you can use. These include:

  • Academic references: Teachers, college professors, instructors, guidance counselors, career counselors, and vocational counselors. 
  • Employment references: Past employers, co-workers, direct reports, clients, and vendors. 
  • Personal references: People who know you well and can attest to your ability to do a job.
  • Professional references: Business and professional contacts.

Whom To Ask for a Reference

Who’s the best person to ask for a reference? What’s most important is to line up references who can discuss the skills, abilities, qualifications, and other assets that make you a fit for the job for which you’re applying. 

Former Managers

A manager from a previous job is one of the best people to ask for a reference because they can speak to your ability to succeed in the workplace and can discuss how you added value to the team, department, or company.

Colleagues and Co-workers

References don't necessarily have to be people you worked for. You can also ask former co-workers you had a good relationship with to act as references. 

Personal References

If you have any involvement in continuing education, volunteering, or community work, supervisors or peers in those roles will be able to provide references. 


You could even use a friend as a reference if they can attest to your qualifications for the job.

Faculty References

Especially when you’re applying for an entry-level role and don’t have much work experience, teachers and professors can be ideal references. In addition to your academic ability, they can attest to how well you work on projects or as part of a team.

Whom Not To Ask for a Reference

There are some people you shouldn’t ask for a reference. It’s not a good idea to ask a family member for a reference, for example, simply because they are family, and the employer is going to expect them to say positive things about you.

Unless you know someone is going to give you a solid endorsement, don’t ask them. Also, don’t ask people who aren’t relevant to the job or the prospective employer. References need to be able to provide a meaningful recommendation that impresses the hiring manager.

How Many References To Have Ready

Try to get a list of more references than you think you'll need for one job. Employers will rarely ask for more than three references, but having a larger pool will allow you to choose among them strategically based on the different requirements of each job.

Three or four references is fine for most applications. For high-level positions, five to seven references are appropriate. Having more references lined up than you need is better than having to scramble to find more if an employer wants them.

Know What Your References Will Say About You

Always choose references who have agreed to provide positive recommendations. The last thing you need when job searching is a negative reference, so be sure you are clear on how your references will endorse you. 


It’s always a good idea to offer a prospective reference an out when you ask for permission to use them. Phrase your request as a question. For example, ask the person if they would be willing or would have the time to recommend you. That way, if they aren’t comfortable endorsing you, they can say no.

How To Choose Which References To Use

References who will take the time to prepare and deliver specific recommendations are often the most powerful. Your best references will be able to speak concretely and anecdotally about your skills, work ethic, and achievements on the job, in the classroom, or in your community.

Match Your References to the Job Requirements

Ask yourself which of your references can provide the most compelling evidence that you have the assets to excel in the job you're applying for. 

Pick and Choose Depending on the Job

Think of your reference selections as a group. One reference may be able to speak to a critical strength such as problem-solving while another might be able to endorse your presentation skills, for example. Make sure your roster of references for a particular job can cover as many of the core job requirements as possible.

Use Internal References if You Have Them

Internal referrals are highly valued by employers. If you have any connections within the company you're applying to, ask if they would be willing to stand as references for you. 

Keep Your Reference List Updated

Add new references and move individuals off your list if they seem less than enthusiastic or if a lot of time has passed since you've worked with them. 

Take the time to follow up to let your references know the status of your job search, and advise them when you get a new position.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are employers obligated to give references for former employees?

There are no federal laws that regulate what an employer can (or cannot) say about an employee, and no obligation to provide references for former employees. Some companies don’t give references, and others provide limited information, such as dates of employment or compensation.

What can a company say about a former employee?

Some states have laws that regulate what an employer can disclose about a former employee, but many permit employers to release information about job responsibilities, work performance, the reason you were terminated, or other factors related to your employment. Your permission may be required for the employer to release the information.

If you’re concerned about what might be disclosed, you can check your state labor department website for information on labor laws in your location.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Monster. "Get Your References Together for Your Job Search."

  3. SHRM. “Can Employers Give a Bad Reference for a Former Employee?”

  4. SHRM. “Follow Rules of the Road for Limited-Reference Policies.”

  5. NOLO. “State Laws on References and Statements by Former Employers.”

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