Professional References: Everything You Need To Know

What are professional references?

Professional references are recommendations from individuals who can vouch for your qualifications and character for employment.

Professional references can make or break any employment opportunity, and tend to be the next step after a prospective employer has taken a look at your resume and/or interviewed you for a position. When it comes to professional references, the first step is ascertaining who exactly you should ask for a reference and how.


Key Takeaways

  • Attaining high-quality professional references is one of the most important steps of the employment process.
  • In order to ensure that you receive an excellent professional recommendation, make sure that you communicate effectively with your referee.
  • Professional references should be authentic, objective, and empirically based.


Who should you ask for a professional reference?

Broadly, you can and should include three professional recommendations. Some positions will require more, others will require less, but three professional references will suffice in most cases.

Professional Reference Candidates

Relationships you should pursue for professional references are: past employers, professors or teachers, colleagues, advisors, mentors, clients or supervisors.

These seven relationships comprise the majority of individuals you could or should ask for a professional reference. The references you choose should be appropriate for the job you are applying for, and should be able to objectively evaluate both your character and professional aptitude.
Do not stray too far from this list, and remember that under no circumstances should you include a close friend, family member or relative, individuals who themselves are not high performers. It is best to give an objective view to potential employers so that time isn’t wasted by both parties on a relationship that won’t work long term.


How to ask for a professional reference:

Asking for a professional reference is often a stressful experience, particularly when you don’t know if the individual you are asking is willing to go to bat on your behalf.

You must always ask for a professional reference before you provide one. By asking beforehand, you also ensure that your referee doesn’t receive a surprise call or email, and is prepared for the situation.

In order to reduce feelings of uncertainty, as well as ensure the reference you end up getting is of high quality, in most cases you should ask for a reference in writing.

This gives your potential referee the ability to think about whether or not they are willing to write a recommendation on your behalf and ensures that reluctant candidates can decline easily if they so choose.

If you haven’t spoken to your potential referee in some time, you should attach an updated resume with your request.

Make sure you notify your potential referee why you believe you would be a good fit for the job, as well as why you are pursuing it.

Finally, don’t forget to thank anyone who provides a professional reference.


How to format a professional reference:

  • When including each of your three professional references ensure that you provide their name, position, company, address, postal code, work email, and phone number in this order.
    Professional ReferenceFormat of Professional Reference
  • Note that it is important to include your relationship to the reference after the phone number (e.g. “Mr. Doe was my mentor at Start-up Industries in 2017”)
  • Some individuals are asked to write their own professional references by their referee, and then they simply grant it validity by signing it themselves. If this is the case, then read on to find out how to write your own professional reference.

How to write a professional reference:

Writing a professional reference can be more difficult than you may anticipate. By being asked to write a professional reference, you will in many cases have a direct impact on an individual’s career and livelihood.

In order to ensure that you are writing a quality professional reference, ensure that you are up to date on their resume and qualifications for the position.

If the reference needed is a letter, think about working with the individual you are writing your reference for.

Speak to their strengths and demonstrate instances where they exhibited that they can succeed and bring something unique to the position they are applying for.

Often, when writing a professional reference, you will be speaking to a candidate’s professional aptitude as well as their character. Make sure to include testaments of both instances.

In most cases, keep your letter to less than a single page, and if the reference requires a phone call, ensure that you have spoken to the individual to let them know the strengths and weaknesses that you would potentially share.

Like all other areas of business, when it comes to receiving and giving professional references, communication is key. Transparency and candour with respect to the candidate’s attributes (both positive and negative) will give both parties an opportunity to consider if the role is a fit and how to appropriate onboarding and coaching strategy.

Above all else, your reference must be authentic, objective, and empirically based.


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