Job References

You can have a great resume and then lose out on a job because one of your references is less than enthusiastic about you or your work.

Select your references carefully, and be sure that they will speak well of you—preferably better than well. There is "nothing as damning as faint praise," so make sure that your references are both capable and willing to speak highly of your character and your work. Here’s a tip: For a modest fee, you can have your references checked out ahead of time. Go to to see one example of this service.

Once you have thought of whom you’d like to use as a reference (and you will usually need at least three), here’s the etiquette to follow:

  • Ask permission to use the person as a reference. Ask if he or she has any reservations whatsoever about recommending you. And ask each time you look for a job, not just the first time. This will give you a chance to make sure the person’s contact information is up-to-date and also to explain how your previous job and skills relate to the new job you’re hoping to get. That helps your reference frame what they will say about you and your skills.
  • You may want to gather letters of reference from teachers, professors, and others as you go through school, volunteer and community activities. These are good character references, but they are not a substitute for work-related references.
  • For work-related references, it is usually somewhat of an imposition to ask for a written reference. Most hiring companies prefer to check references by phone, and written references may not address the areas a new employer is interested in.
  • Ask the reference how he or she would like to be contacted—phone, mail, or email. Be sure to write the contact information down correctly.
  • Often companies will ask that you attach the names of your references to your initial application for the job before you have even been granted an interview. It’s preferable when they ask for references as the last step in the process. That way you can make sure that your references are not being bothered prematurely, and you can give your references any information you have gathered in the interviewing process so they can speak to the specific skills required. You might try including a statement that says, "I will be happy to provide information about my references when we are further along in the process." If you are uncomfortable with this, provide the reference information but include a statement that you would prefer they not be contacted until further along in the process.
  • If, during an interview, you are asked, "May we check your references?" the answer is always, "Yes." However, as noted above, you can try to control the timing of this. You might say: "Of course you may contact my references. But I would prefer to keep matters as confidential as possible until we are both sure that I am the best candidate for the job."
  • They may also say, "May we contact your present employer?" This is a tough one, especially if you have had few employers or have been with this employer for many years. The advice: Do not let your present employer know you are looking for a new job until you have a new job. You might say that you do not mind if they contact your present employer, but before they do so you want a written offer from them and the opportunity to resign from your present job in a professional manner, giving two weeks (or more) notice.
  • Be aware that your references may need some coaching. You may want to say something like, "Do you remember all of those nights that I stayed late to get the proposals out?" or "I think the experience I gained working with you on the Johnson account would be really relevant to the job I’m applying for." Most references will welcome this sort of coaching – they may not remember specifics about our employment.