Professional References: Who and How to Ask

Updated November 1, 2021
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Professional references are people who know what kind of employee you are or are likely to be. They shouldn't be strictly personal contacts, but rather people who can provide a recruiter or hiring manager with information that will help them get a sense of how you can be expected to perform at work. When you're looking for a job, you need to be prepared to provide employers with contact information for at least three professional references.

Who Can Be a Professional Reference?

A professional reference can be anyone who knows enough about your work ethic and job-related skills and abilities to provide an employer with helpful information. Ideally, professional references will be people who have had a positive experience working directly with you, though there are some other options to consider, especially if you need references for your first job.

  • Past boss - Someone who has supervised you in the past can make an ideal reference. This could be a person who was your manager at a job you left. It could also be someone who was your manager before they left to pursue another opportunity.
  • Current boss - If you are fine with your current boss knowing you are looking for a new job, such as if you are moving out of town or the company is closing, then you may want to ask them to provide a reference for you.
  • Co-worker - A trusted co-worker with whom you have a good working relationship can also be a good reference. Consider someone that you work closely with on a regular basis, or someone that you have served with on a special project.
  • Former co-worker - Someone that you worked with at a past job, or a person who used to be on your team at work, can also be a good choice for a professional reference.
  • Project manager - If you are in or have had a job that involves working on project teams, consider asking the person who oversaw a project that you participated in to provide you with a professional reference.
  • Client or customer - If you are or have been in a job that involves building strong relationships with clients or customers, there might be someone you know in that capacity who would make a good reference.
  • Professional contacts - If you are a member of a professional association, maybe you have built relationships with others who work in your field or industry. Such individuals can be good professional references.
  • Volunteer contacts - If you have done volunteer work or service hours for a nonprofit organization, other volunteers or the volunteer coordinator or committee chair may be potential references.
  • Instructor/professor - If you have studied under an educator who is well-known in the field, consider asking that individual to provide you with a professional reference. Instructors are also good references for early-career individuals.
  • Internship coordinator - If you did an internship while in school, the internship coordinator at the company where you worked and/or the person who oversaw your internship at the school could be good references.

Choose your references carefully, making sure to only ask people who view you in a positive light from a professional perspective. Don't ask anyone who might provide a bad employment reference for you.

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How to Ask Someone to Provide a Reference

Once you have decided who to select, the next step is to ask them to assist you in accomplishing your career goals by agreeing to be one of your references.

  1. Choose between three and six people to ask to serve as references. Employers usually ask for three references, but you need to have a few extra in case someone is unavailable when an employer requests this information.
  2. Reach out directly to each person, explaining that you are looking for a new job and asking if they would be willing for you to share their name and contact information with prospective employers as a professional reference.
  3. If anyone says "no," respect their decision and ask someone else. Don't take it personally. Company policy sometimes prevents people from providing professional references for people they met in the course of their employment.
  4. For those who say "yes," thank them and let them know what kind of jobs you are applying for, and the timeframe in which you plan to do so. This will help them know what to expect, and to be prepared to field reference inquiries.
  5. Ask each person who agrees to serve as a reference to share complete contact details, including their full name, company name, official job title, email address, phone number, alternate phone number, and mailing address.
  6. Ask each individual if they prefer to be contacted by phone or email, and if there are certain times of the day or days of the week that are better to be contacted than others. Sometimes employers ask for this information.
  7. Tell those who agree that you'll immediately let them know if an employer tells you they'll be reaching out to your references, so they'll know when to expect a call or email request from someone who is thinking about hiring you.

Once you have identified your professional references, put together a reference list with each person's full contact details. This will be a helpful tool that you can use when filling out job applications, and to provide to employers upon request.

Professional vs. Personal References

Employers almost always request professional references from job candidates. Some also ask for personal references. Professional references are different from personal references. If an employer asks for personal references, they are looking for individuals such as friends, relatives, neighbors, or classmates who can provide a character reference for you. When asked for personal references, consider people who know what kind of person you are, and can speak to your honesty, kindness, and other positive character traits. For professional references, follow the guidance above to compile a list of people who can help you secure your next job.

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Professional References: Who and How to Ask