Job Search Tips

The 5 people you should have as a reference

Written by Kate Lopaze

Handing over a list of references to a potential new employer can feel like tricky business. If you don’t have a job offer in hand, you might be worried about your job search getting back to your current employer. If you’re just starting out, you may worry that you don’t yet have a good go-to list of professional references.

No matter what stage you’re in, these 5 types of people make great references for any job search.

1. Past bosses

This is one of the many reasons you shouldn’t burn bridges when you leave a job: one day, your previous boss could be a great asset to a job search. Most of the time, people are doing a job search on the DL and don’t want to broadcast that fact to their current boss. So how do you find a person who knows you, your work style, and your achievements, but also won’t be offended by your current job hunt? Look to your past! Recent bosses are best because they know you (more or less) now, but any previous boss can testify to your skills and general personality.

2. Past supervisors

This may seem similar to a previous boss, but it’s not always. A supervisor may have been someone who managed you on a project or a limited basis, even if you technically reported to someone else. Don’t forget them when you’re thinking of people who might be familiar with your working style and history.

3. Colleagues

Colleagues can be great references because they see your on-the-ground work in ways that a boss or supervisor might not. You’ll want to pick someone who’s familiar with your work and your achievements—not necessarily your happy hour buddy or the colleague with whom you casually discuss sports or TV.

One caveat: colleagues from a past job are safest, but if you think that a trusted current colleague can be discreet it’s fine to ask them to be a reference too. Just know that if you choose a current colleague, there’s a possibility that news of your job search could reach others in your company.

4. Professional friends from your network

A friend or mentor within your industry or a mentor can be a great reference, even if they haven’t worked with you directly, because they can speak to your professional skills and goals. A professional friend shouldn’t replace a boss or colleague on your reference list, but they can certainly help round out the list and praise you and your career path.

Before you use someone from your network as a reference, make sure you’re currently in touch with them and let them know what you’re applying for, what skills or accomplishments you’d like to focus on, and where you see your career going within this new company.

5. Professors or academic contacts

If you’re just starting out of school, even if you don’t have a lot of job experience (or professional colleagues) to mine for your reference list, you might have worked with professors in areas related to the job you’re seeking. A professor who knows you fairly well can testify to your skills, your strengths, and your work ethic.

If you’re going to use a professor, make sure it’s one that you worked with closely. Picking someone who might not be able to pick you out of a lineup of 40 other students won’t make for a good reference experience.

With any reference you provide, make sure you give the person a heads-up that they may be contacted by X company to talk about hiring you for Y position. If the person is blindsided, they might not be able to give a thoughtful, detailed reference on your behalf. Most people are happy to give good references if they have a heads-up and know your current professional situation.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.