What is a Professional Reference?

Definition and Examples of Professional References

Two businesswomen shaking hands after agreeing to give a reference.
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You may have recently seen a note in a job posting that an applicant should provide professional references along with a resume or as part of a job application.

Or perhaps you’ve been asked for a list of references after you had an interview with a company. What exactly are professional references? Who should you use to provide those references?

What Are Professional References?

A professional reference is a recommendation from a person who can vouch for your qualifications for a job.

Employment and Professional References

These references can be employment references such as those from previous employers or co-workers, as well as references from people such as clients or business contacts who know you on a professional basis.


A professional reference for an experienced worker is from typically a former employer, a colleague, a client, a vendor, a supervisor, or someone else who can recommend you for employment.

Academic References

Students and recent college graduates might also tap academic references, including those from professors, coaches, and college personnel who were advisers for your activities. The key is picking references who have observed you acting in a productive capacity where you displayed your skills and credentials for employment.

Personal References

Professional references differ from personal or character references, which are much more personal. The professional reference is speaking mainly to the applicant’s employability and work-related qualities, as opposed to their personal or character traits. Personal references may be helpful at times, but don’t be tempted to submit a personal reference as a substitute when the job listing or interviewer specifically requires a professional reference.

How to Find the Ideal Reference

Match Your Reference to the Job

Consider the qualifications for your target job when you’re choosing individuals to act as your references. Ask yourself who can vouch for the skills and attributes in your background that are most critical for success in that job. Your mix of references might differ based on the varied requirements of the positions for which you are applying. 

Ask References Who Know Your Work

The ideal reference will be able to speak in a very specific way about your assets and back up her assertions with examples from your work. An individual who can only provide vague positive references to your strengths may be less convincing. So, you’ll want to place a priority on people who know your work quite well as opposed to picking the most prestigious or highest-ranking individual.

Choose References Who Can Attest to Your Skills

Think of your most successful roles first and consider individuals who can attest to how you engineered those achievements. For example, maybe you had a close relationship with your academic adviser but when you took her four courses, you only got C and B grades. In this case, you might not want to select her as a professional reference. Instead, you’d be better off with references from someone else. Maybe tap another professor from who you earned two A's, as long as they know you well enough and are willing to help.


Make sure the individual you select is comfortable providing a positive recommendation for you. Many candidates make the mistake of assuming a person will provide a strong endorsement when they are only prepared to provide a somewhat positive evaluation of your performance. 

Find Out What They Are Going to Say

The best way to gain a perspective on how a prospective reference might represent your background is to ask them to compose a recommendation for your file. Try writing a recommendation for your references on LinkedIn and then ask them to return the favor. 

When requesting that an individual act as a reference, ask "Are you comfortable providing a very positive recommendation for me for a financial analyst job? I'm trying to make a strong case for my candidacy." Making your request in writing is usually the best approach so a reluctant individual can decline more comfortably.


If you're concerned about getting a bad reference, review tips for handling them. You may be able to offset a negative reference from an employer with a positive one from a different professional connection.


7 Things That Make a Recommendation Letter Stand Out

How to Provide References to Employers

When you apply for a job, you may be asked for a list of professional references either after a job interview or in some cases when you apply for a job. Here's how to handle it:

  • When you provide a professional reference to a prospective employer, include the person's name, job title, company, address, phone number, and email address.
  • Create a list of references to have ready to share with prospective employers.
  • Be sure that you have the person's permission to use them as a reference before you give out their contact information.
  • Keep your references appraised of your progress with the hiring process and give them a heads up if you think they might be contacted. If there are particular issues that have come up during your interview let your references to those concerns. They may be able to address the issue during a reference check.
  • A well-prepared reference will usually be able to provide a more detailed and convincing recommendation when contacted.


Be sure to thank anyone who gives you a reference. A short note or email is all it takes, and people want to know when their efforts are appreciated. 

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  1. CareerOneStop. "References." Accessed June 9, 2021.

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