How to Get the Best Employment References

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At some point during your job search, a potential employer will request references and conduct a reference check. Typically, it will be when the company is seriously interested in you as a potential hire.

It's important to be prepared to provide a list of employment references who can attest to the skills and qualifications that you have for the job you are applying for. You might even want to have a few letters of reference on hand as well.


It’s a good idea to plan and get your references in order before you need them. It will save time scrambling to put together a list at the last minute.

Keep in mind that a positive endorsement can help you clinch a job offer, and a negative reference can hurt your chances. Be sure to have a strong list of references who know all about your strengths, and about the jobs you are applying for.

Tips for Getting the Best References

It takes a bit of time and preparation to gather a list of strong references. Here are some steps you can take to make sure you select references who will give you glowing reviews.

Who to Ask for a Reference

Ask the Right People

Former bosses, co-workers, customers, vendors, and colleagues all make good professional references. College professors also make good references.


If you are just starting out in the workforce or if you haven't worked in a while, you can use a character or personal reference from people who know your skills and attributes.

These might include friends, neighbors, people you’ve volunteered with, and more. Most importantly, only ask people who you know will give you a positive reference. Also, try to ask people who are reliable. You want to know your references will respond to employers on time.

Be Aware of Company Reference Policies

Some employers will not provide references. Due to concerns about litigation, they might only provide your job title, dates of employment, and salary history. If that's the case, be creative and try to find alternative reference writers who are willing to speak to your qualifications.

When to Ask for a Reference

It’s important to ask someone ahead of time if they are willing to be a reference.

When You Start a Job Search

Try to ask as soon as you begin your job search (if not earlier). This way, you can have a list of references ready for an employer. If you need a letter of reference, ask the person as soon as possible, so he or she does not feel rushed.

When You Change Jobs

Even if you don’t ask for a written letter, you should ask for a reference every time you change employment.


Before you leave, ask your supervisor (and perhaps one or two coworkers) if he or she will serve as a reference for you in the future.

That way, you can create a list of references from people you may not necessarily be able to track down years later.

How to Ask for a Reference

The best way to ask for a reference is to say, “Do you feel you know my work well enough to serve as a reference?” or “Do you feel comfortable providing me with a good reference?” This will ensure that the only people who say “yes” to you will be those who will write you a positive reference.

When someone agrees to be a reference, give them all the information they might need to give you a positive reference:

  • Provide them with an updated resume.
  • Tell them what kinds of jobs you are looking at, so they know what skills and experiences of yours they should highlight.
  • If you know a particular employer is going to contact your references, provide your references with information about the job and the employer.
  • If you need a letter of reference for a particular job, tell your reference all the necessary information about where to submit the letter, and when the deadline is.

How to Manage Your References

Have Some Recommendation Letters Available

Many employers won't be interested in written reference letters. They will either want to speak to your references on the phone or via email. However, it is still a good idea to have some letters of reference available for the employers that do want them.

If you are graduating from school or leaving a job (as long as you are leaving on a positive note), you can ask your employer for a letter of reference. This way, he or she can write the letter while your work is still fresh in his or her mind.

Maintain Your Reference Network

Maintain your reference network with periodic phone calls, emails, LinkedIn messages, or notes to get and give updates. This is an important way to keep them updated on your life (and your job search). If you are fresh in their minds, they will be more likely to give you more specific, and more positive, recommendations.

It’s Okay to Say No

A prospective employer should ask your permission before contacting your references, although not all do. It's perfectly acceptable to say that you are not comfortable with your current employer being contacted at present.

This is especially important when you are currently employed because you don't want your interviewer to surprise your current employer with a phone call checking your references. However, do have a list of alternative references available.

Keep Your References up to Date (And Thank Them)

Let your references know where your job search stands. Tell them who might be calling them for a reference.

When you get a new job, don't forget to send a thank you letter to those who provided you with a reference. Even if you don't get hired right away, take the time to follow up with your references. They'll appreciate being informed of your status.

Make a Reference List

Once you have your references, create a document listing those references. The list of references should not be included in your resume. Rather, create a separate reference list.

Have it ready to give to employers when you interview. Include three or four references, along with their job titles, employers, and contact information. Once you've made your reference list, check it twice.

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  1. CareerOneStop. "References." Accessed Dec. 18, 2020.

  2. SHRM. "When Giving References, How Truthful Can You Be?" Accessed Dec. 18, 2020.

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