Job References Guide: How to Get the Best References

How to select and use employment references

Whether you're job searching, seeking a promotion, growing your career, or expanding your business, it is important to have references ready.

You may have to provide employers with a list of your references. Or, employers may ask that your references submit letters of recommendation (also known as reference letters) for you.


A reference is a person who can vouch for your abilities.

References can be complicated, from knowing whom to ask for one (and how), to providing contact information in the right format. Learn everything job seekers need to know about references. 

What Are Employment References?

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Employment references are former colleagues and/or supervisors who can attest to your skills and qualifications. Potential employers will contact references to ask questions about you.

Plan ahead and get your references in order before you need them. It will help you avoid scrambling to put together a list at the last minute. 

Some employers will request that references write you a letter of recommendation. Make sure you know what the employer wants from your references. 

When Employers Conduct Reference Checks

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When you are job searching, expect to have your references checked by prospective employers. Employers may also run a credit or background check on potential employees. Learn more about the kinds of question employers will ask your references, and what your references are allowed to say about you.

Types of References

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There are several types of recommendation letters you can use for job searching, including: 

How to Select and Use References

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When you apply for jobs, get a list of references ready. Typically, employers ask for about three references. Those references should be able to vouch for your skills, abilities, and qualifications as they relate to the jobs you apply for.

Make sure to only ask people who you are confident will give you a positive reference. Consider asking previous employers, colleagues, business contacts, and others who know your professional abilities.

Here's more about who to use for references when you apply for jobs and how your references can help your job search.

How to Ask for a Reference

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It’s important to ask for a reference in a way that gives the person an easy “out” if they do not feel they can give you a positive reference. This guarantees you will only get enthusiastic, positive references.

Provide your reference with all the information they need. For example, if they have to write you a letter, give them information on what to include, where to send it, and when it is due.

Also, tell your references about the jobs you are applying for, so they can begin to think about how your skills and abilities match the roles.

When to Use Professional References

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A professional reference is a reference from a person who can vouch for your suitability for a job. This is the most common kind of reference.

A professional reference should know you in a work-related capacity, such as being a former employer, a colleague, a client, a vendor, a supervisor, or someone else who can recommend you for employment.

If you are a recent college graduate with limited work experience, you might also be able to use a professor or college administrator as a professional reference.

Review information on who makes the best professional reference, how to find out what he or she will say about you, and how to provide references to employers.

When to Use Character and Personal References

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There are many times you might use a character reference (also known as a personal reference), in addition to or as an alternative to an employment reference letter. For example, if you are looking for your first job and have no professional references, a personal reference is a great option. If you are concerned about the reference your employer might give you, you can also add a personal reference to boost your application.

A personal reference is someone who can speak to your character and abilities. This person typically knows you in a more personal capacity. A personal reference can be a neighbor, a volunteer leader, a coach, or even a friend.

Get more information about who to ask for a character reference, and how to write a character reference letter. Here are examples of personal reference letters: 

When to Use References on LinkedIn

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Increasingly, employers are using the professional networking site LinkedIn to search for job candidates. Having LinkedIn recommendations can boost your profile and get you noticed by an employer.

Here's advice on how to get LinkedIn recommendations, who to ask for references, and how to manage the recommendations you've received.

How to Create a Reference List

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Employers will often ask you to send them a reference list as part of your job application. Here's how to format that list: 

  • Include your name at the top of the page 
  • List out each reference—include the person's name, job title, company, and contact information
  • Include a space in between each reference.

Each time you use someone as a reference, take the time to follow up with them on the status of your job search.

Review Reference Letter Examples

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Whether you are writing or requesting references, it's always helpful to look at examples of different types of reference letters. If you are writing a reference, you can use these examples as templates. If you are requesting a reference, you might send one of these examples to a reference to help them write their own letter. 

Here are sample character and professional recommendation letters. You'll also find information on how to utilize references, reference lists, and related resources.

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