Job Search Tips

How to Get Good Professional References

Written by Peter Jones

Asking for a reference can be a subtle art form, but it’s a necessary thing to learn how to do, and do well. You’ll want to put a good deal of thought into who you choose, as you will need to get their consent before giving out their name.

Here are a few tips for how to plan for the perfect reference.

1. Go Pro

It may be tempting to pick a pal over a professional contact, but it’s not going to serve you half as well. Go for someone familiar with your work and experience. And when you’re asked for a personal reference, make sure to choose someone who isn’t too personal. Think of it as a character reference, and err on the side of professionals over pals.

2. Tailor to the Position

Don’t just ask the same people or person for every reference. Think hard about the position you’re applying to and what skills your potential reference would ideally be able to speak to on your behalf. Go specific over generic. And, when possible, give the contact information of the hiring manager directly to your referrer. That avoids the bland “to whom it may concern” opening to their letter.

3. Develop a Range

Come up with 3-5 referrers who can be asked for different positions and can speak to different strengths of yours. Get their permission and have them lined up and ready to go when you need to deploy them.

4. Get Their Details

You’ll want a name, business address, phone number, email, current title, company name, and preferred method of contact notated somewhere for each of your references. Leave them off your resume, but you might be asked for these in an interview or application situation, so have them ready. Try to keep their communication preferences straight as well.

5. Inform Them Throughout the Process

Keep your referrers in the loop. Let them know what jobs you’re applying to, send them the description, give them names of anyone who might be contacting them on your behalf. Coach them a bit, if you can, on what the hiring manager is looking for. And don’t forget to thank them each and every time they recommend you somewhere.

6. Ask in Person

It may be tempting to ask over email, but resist the temptation! A more personal ask is called for when you’re asking someone to do you a massive professional favor. Pick up the phone and call—or better yet, take them out for coffee. Keep the relationship strong and don’t assume you’re owed anything. Keep your referrers sweet!

7. Send your Resume

It will often be extremely helpful for you referrers to see a copy of your resume. Who knows? They might end up being even more impressed with you than they were before when they agreed to recommend you.

8. Know What They’ll Say

When in doubt, don’t ask anyone who you’re not sure will go to bat for you. You want to be more or less certain what your referrers are going to say about you, your skills, and your experience. If there’s any doubt, either have a conversation about it, or ask someone you feel more secure about.


About the author

Peter Jones