How to Use Professional References to Your Advantage

You know you’re a skilled professional and hard worker, but prospective employers aren’t always going to take your word for it. That’s why selecting strong professional references should be a key component of your job search. Once seen merely as a formality, reference checks have become increasingly important as companies invest more time and money to ensure they land the right talent.

Many job seekers still regard references as an afterthought, which can be a critical mistake. Eight in 10 HR executives report consistently contacting employee references and 36 percent of managers say they use references to understand an applicant’s past duties and experience. In today’s competitive job market, where it’s easy to get lost among virtual stacks of resumés, quality references can be the difference between an exciting new job offer and another weekend spent scouring the job boards.

Assuming you’ve already done the hard work of earning a favorable reputation with your colleagues, it’s now time to choose which people in your professional network should represent you. Not all professional references are created equal, so be sure to choose references who will help, not hinder, your job search. In fact, hiring managers report that they eliminate over 20 percent of candidates after speaking with references, so it’s important to be selective.

Here’s how to make the most of your professional references to guarantee you stand out among other applicants and land your next role.

A Graduate Degree Can Help Advance Your Career

Explore Northeastern’s 200+ programs to find the one that will best help you achieve your goals.


What is a professional reference?

A professional reference is someone who can vouch for your qualifications for a job—typically a former employer, supervisor, colleague, teacher, or client. When choosing who to utilize as a professional reference, focus on individuals who have insight into your work ethic, work style, skills, strengths, and achievements.

Ideally, your collection of references will cover a variety of your skills. For instance, a co-worker can speak to your teamwork abilities, whereas a supervisor will have more insight into your professional growth and the way you handle workplace challenges. Strong professional references from different viewpoints give potential employers a chance to hear what a great asset you will be from a variety of third-party perspectives.

When sharing these references with hiring managers, be sure to include your contact’s first and last name, current title, company, preferred contact information, and a brief description of his or her relationship to you. 

Keep in Mind: Professional references are not the same as personal references, who focus on personal traits instead of work-related qualifications and industry-relevant skills. Make sure you’re clear as to which type of reference the hiring manager is looking for.

Who should you use as a professional reference?

The best references are people who:

  • Worked with you directly.
  • Worked with you recently.
  • Know your strengths.
  • Will advocate for you.

When compiling your list of professional references, ask yourself these questions to decide whether or not someone will be a good reference:

1. “What was the quality of our working relationship?”

Consider individuals who know you well enough to provide several detailed examples. In most cases, these people will be colleagues you’ve worked with closely on teams, direct supervisors, or even advisors from nonprofits you’ve volunteered for. Include people who can attest not only to your specific skills, but to your work ethic as well. By using people who can provide examples of your dependability and drive, you give prospective employers one more reason to push your resumé to the top of the pile.

Be careful not to harm your application by listing references that can only provide vague examples of your work. Weak references can be just as damaging as negative ones, leaving the hiring manager to wonder why you would include someone who can’t speak definitively about your experiences and abilities. After all, if one of the few people you chose to advocate for your strengths cannot come up with a compelling story, they may think twice about your ability to make an impact.

2. “How recently did we work together?”

Although you may still be in touch with people you worked with many years ago, if all of your references are dated, you may be unintentionally sending the message that your more recent professional relationships aren’t as strong. Plus, if you haven’t had contact with them in years, chances are they won’t remember your great ideas and achievements as clearly as others. Try to find a balance of individuals who can attest to relevant skills throughout your work history.

Keep In Mind: If you can, avoid listing your current supervisor as a reference. Unless you’re sure he or she will not be concerned that you’re leaving, you don’t want to jeopardize your current job while you look for a new one.

3. “Which of my strengths do they know?”

Consider the specific qualifications of the prospective job and ask yourself who can vouch for these particular types of skills. For example, certain supervisors and colleagues may be able to speak to your skill as a digital marketer, while others see you as an expert in client relations.

If possible, list references who have worked with you in the same or similar role to the one you’re seeking. If you’re looking to advance in your marketing career, for instance, the head of marketing will be a more effective reference than the HR manager who hired you. Although they may both know you well, the head of marketing can attest to successful and specific marketing projects you worked on, demonstrating you have the expertise required to succeed in the new role.

4. “Will they advocate for me?”

Make sure the individuals you select are comfortable providing a positive recommendation for you. Many candidates make the mistake of assuming a former supervisor will provide a strong endorsement, when in reality their attitude is lukewarm. While you probably have a sense of their opinions already, the easiest way to find out what they intend to say during a reference call is simply to ask. While we all have certain supervisors we don’t quite mesh with, there’s no rule that says you need to include that particular boss. Go with someone who will do their best to advocate for you.

How to Ask Someone For a Reference

Asking someone to be a professional reference can feel uncomfortable, particularly if you don’t have an extensive work history or you’ve left some jobs on unfavorable terms. Once you’ve decided who you want to act as your references, however, there are a few key guidelines you should follow:

1. Ask their permission.

Always ask permission before giving out someone’s contact information. Beyond common courtesy, it’s necessary to make sure your references won’t be caught off-guard. If they’re not expecting a call, they’ll be unprepared, leaving them grasping for examples of your past experience and qualifications. Don’t miss out on a strong recommendation by forgetting to give them a heads-up. A simple email can do the trick, letting them know you’re job-hunting and asking for permission to provide their contact information to prospective employers.

2. Prepare them adequately.

After receiving their permission, let your references know if and when they should be expecting a call or email from a potential employer. It’s helpful to have a quick conversation to get them up-to-speed on what you’ve been working on recently, as well as to provide them with a copy of your most recent resumé.

Make sure to provide your references with a job description and any additional information you’d like them to know regarding the prospective role. This way, they know how to best align your experiences and can tailor the conversation to include your achievements that are most relevant to the position. Don’t be afraid to remind them of what you accomplished together or mention the skills you’d like them to highlight.

3. Follow up.

Don’t forget to follow through on your request by keeping your references abreast of any progress or changes in your job search. Regardless of the outcome, make sure to thank those who agreed to provide references on your behalf. It only takes five minutes, but drafting a simple and sincere note thanking them for taking time out of their day will make them feel appreciated and foster your relationship for the future.

Taking the Next Step in Your Career

Following the above steps can help you leverage this part of the job application process by highlighting your past experiences with colleagues, employers, and clients. If you’ve selected and adequately prepared the right individuals, they will be able to impress a hiring manager in a way that your resumé alone can not.

Showcasing your skills and experience is, of course, crucial to securing a position and advancing your career. Additionally, pursuing a graduate degree or certificate is a great way to build these skills while also fostering meaningful relationships with people you may one day use as references. After all, professors are some of the best professional references you can provide—they know your work ethic, field-specific skills, and, most importantly, they want you to succeed.

Interested in reading other career content? Head over to our career advice archives to learn more about how to job search effectively, write a better cover letter, and prepare to impress a hiring manager, and much more.


Looking for More?

Explore our career advice archives for tips and strategies to help advance professionally.