A good reference can get you a job.

When a prospective employer asks for a reference it’s a positive sign, it means they’re very close to employing you. It’s therefore vital that you carefully plan what to give them, as a bad one can still slip you up at this last hurdle.

In this article, we explain the different types of references, what they’re used for and most importantly how to choose one that gives you the edge over other equally qualified candidates.

The first thing to remember about references is that recruiters almost always check them. If you are selected for an interview and pass the screening and selection process, then there is a very good chance that the recruiter will contact any references you provide. This is because they allow prospective employers to find out if you will be suitable for a job and a reliable employee. They are used to verify the information given in your application and understand what it’s like to work with you. HR and personnel managers see them as the final step to check out about you.

With so much at stake you should see them as an opportunity to add a layer of depth and trustworthiness to your application.


What is a job  reference?

It’s a testimony that reinforces you as a candidate.

Individual references are called referees, these are people who can answer questions about your work history, experience, and key skills. These are colleagues who have supervised or worked closely with you and possess first hand knowledge of you as a worker, employee, and person. You should consider a referee to be your own brand ambassador.

As part of a mandatory series of background checks they are used to confirm your previous employment and double check what you’ve said in your resume. Usually, the last thing checked before you are offered a job, they are part of the due diligence process on candidates to ensure they are who they claim to be.


What do recruiters want from a reference?

  • To confirm what you’ve said in your job application is true.
  • Have someone vouch for your capabilities.
  • Carry out a fact checking exercise to see if you’ve been dishonest.


When is a reference asked for?

An impressed employer normally asks for one just before or after they send out a formal acceptance letter to you. Very rarely asked for at the beginning, instead nearly always requested at the end of the recruitment process.


How many references should you provide?

Typically, you only need to forward between 2 to 3.


Why is a job reference important?

Look closely at any offer of employment letter and you will see the words ‘subject to reference checks’ in it. They want one final confirmation that you’re the right one.

A good reference from a reliable source gives them that. It’s the final piece of jigsaw that gives your application the seal of approval. Being an integral part of the pre-employment checks for a new hire, you should not underestimate the impact it can have on whether a potential employer ultimately decides to take you onboard.


Types of job references

The two main types are a work reference and character reference. These in turn can subdivided further into basic or detailed ones.


Work reference

Also known as a professional or factual reference, they are provided by a current or previous employer. Given by supervisors, colleagues, or mentors, they stick to the facts such as your name, job title and employment periods. A basic one simply contains the essential information about promotions, daily duties and tasks completed etc.


Detailed work reference

This is by far the most commonly requested reference as it gives a more comprehensive picture of you. Sometimes called a full reference, it is written by someone you have worked with in a professional capacity. In addition to what’s included in a basic one, it can also touch on your characteristics and social skills. It may include a detailed assessment of your performance, disciplinary record, experience, and future potential.

Bear in mind it could list your sickness, absence, and punctuality records as well as your reasons for leaving a job.


Character reference

Also referred to as a personal reference these are usually from someone who knows the applicant on a personal level, such as a family member, friend, community leader, neighbour or even client.

It helps if your character referee is a respectable member of society, as their position will boost their integrity. They are trusted to attest to the applicant’s suitability for a new role through their honesty, reputation and good nature.

All in all though, not as highly regarded as an academic or professional work references. This is because recruiters realise that the referee is likely to be someone close to you personally and therefore not likely to write anything negative about you.

These are mostly used by people who have not worked before, the long term unemployed and young job seekers.


Which type of reference do recruiters trust the most?

Prospective employers tend to seek out and trust professional references more than they do character references.


Academic references

Mainly from someone who taught, mentored, or supervised you in an education setting.  Basically, people who have spent a significant amount of time teaching you like university lecturers, teachers, professors, and academic advisors. Apart from giving you a personal reference they also confirm claims about your academic credentials.

Mostly used to apply for internships and entry level jobs.

If you are planning to get one of these then, its’s a good idea to contact your old tutors beforehand to remind them about the subjects you studied and the grades you achieved.


Customer references

These are from past clients who have used your services or products and give an insight into your customer service, sales and communication skills.


Who to use as a job reference

Select those who you know will speak favourably about you and your work.

It’s vital to choose ones who think highly of you, not negatively and who will back up your claims. Ideally a credible individual who, is a former supervisor or manager. Even better if they have had successful careers or good senior positions in their chosen professions. Certain recruiters will use their status to gauge their reliability and relationship with you. Also, avoid if possible references from years ago, try to have recent ones.

In conclusion they must be a credible coworker who is unbiased in their opinion of your work ethic and prepared to provide you with a strong reference.


If you are currently employed

You should always be prepared to provide a reference from your present place of work, otherwise the recruiter may think you have something to hide.


Be prepared

Always have a list of people you know who can serve as potential referees, ready for when the need arises. This will save you having to scramble around at the last minute.

Once you’ve got a few names, ask them if you can rely on them to give you a positive reference. If the answer is not a clear ‘yes’ the choose someone else.

Speak to the referee beforehand to confirm how long you’ve known each other etc. You want to make sure everything is in sync with what you’ve put down on the resume.

If they’re really valuable referees, then you should keep in touch with them regularly so as to cultivate a long term positive relationship with them. What they have to say about you could be gold dust to your future career prospects.


Don’t burn bridges with old employers

You’ll usually need a reference from your current or previous employer when you’re looking for a new job. It’s advisable to therefore remain on good terms with those you worked with and for.


Keep contact details updated

Ensure that your references are easy to contact by making sure their phones, emails and postal addresses are up to date. The last think you need is for the recruiter being unable to contact your references.


Who not to ask for a reference

Certain references can appear unprofessional or amateurish and reflect badly on you. Generally speaking do not get them from close relatives, family members and people who do not know you that well. They are not credible or acceptable to be references. Furthermore, try to avoid leaders of political parties and religious organisations, they again may not be appropriate.

Even if they know you well, they are not seen as being impartial and as having a presumed and favourable bias towards you.

It also goes without saying that if you’ve been fired or ended your employment on bad terms, then it’s unlikely you’re going to get favourable feedback from those parties.


When to give references for a job

Never volunteer them at the start, instead they should be provided at the end of the recruitment process. There is no obligation on you to include references on your resume. Virtually everyone just puts ‘References available on request’ on their resume and nothing else.


Do not provide references until a job offer has been made!

Most job seekers prefer discretion in their search for work and understandably would rather their current employer doesn’t know of their activities until it’s absolutely necessary. Basically, they cannot risk letting their present employer know what they’re up to.

It can be awkward for an applicant if they are still working at their old place and their managers are contacted by a prospective new employer. Some may not take kindly to the news that you’re looking to leave and If they find out you’re applying for other jobs you could be overlooked for promotion or even lose your job as a result.


More reasons not to give them up front

  • Your referee’s personal information could be unnecessarily seen, captured and then distributed online.
  • Unscrupulous recruiters can pester them with unsolicited cold calls and emails to pitch their own businesses services to them.
  • Space is at a premium on your resume, listing the details of referees takes up capacity which could be used to put in your skills and experience.

In essence your referees’ details should only be given on a need to know basis and when they are asked for.


When to give your references upfront

When the job description specifically asks you to provide them with your resume or CV. This is rare but can happen for certain specialist or leadership roles. In this scenario, they will also typically specify how many reverences to provide.



If you have been asked to bring them to an interview, then have them prewritten on a piece of paper and hand this over.


Where to put job references on a resume

If you do include any, then add them at the end of your resume, below everything else.

Alternatively, save space by not listing the actual names and contact details of any references. Instead, at the very end of your resume or CV (not cover letter) insert a simple line that says ‘References available on request’.


Job references from past employers

The majority of employers only reveal factual details about a current or past employer. This is because giving additional information can put them at risk of being legally challenged by the staff member in question.

A person who believes they’ve been given an unfair reference that led to a job offer being withdrawn may be able to claim damages in court.

What all of this means is that they rarely give out more than they have to, avoiding areas such as personality traits, disciplinary records or opinions on performance or future potential. In essence they just stick to the facts as its risky for them to say anything else.

Employers who reveal more tend to be small or relatively new companies who don’t have a mature HR department or experienced personnel in it.


Legal requirements for employers giving you a reference

Past employers are not legally obliged to give you a reference, but if they do then they must be ‘accurate and fair’. They must ensure their references do not contain lies, bias, exaggerations, or fabrications.

References must not be misleading, exaggerate the truth, be inaccurate or include irrelevant personal information. Including any misinformation or unsubstantiated negative assessments can leave them open to legal action by the candidate. For instance, a past employer can say an employee was sacked, as long as there is evidence to back up their claim.


References and discrimination

References should not include any personal or professional information that could be used in a discriminatory way. An individual must not be disadvantaged because of their:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Civil partnership
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy
  • Race
  • Religious beliefs
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation


Does a past employer have to give you a reference?

Most will willingly give you one, especially if you get along with them. But legally they are not obligated to do so, unless:

  • It explicitly says so in your contract of employment.
  • You have written proof they’ve agreed to give you one (like in an email).
  • You work in a regulated industry like the financial services.


Problems getting a reference

Under the following circumstances it can be an issue getting a reference from previous employer:

  • You are a newcomer to the company.
  • Haven’t been there that long.
  • Do not get along with people at the company.
  • Your current or previous roles are unrelated to the type of job you are applying for.


Preparing your referee for when they are contacted

Firstly, never give a person’s contact details as reference without getting their permission first. It’s not good etiquette to hand over their particulars unannounced, as it can backfire by them giving you a bad reference. Always contact them first with your proposal, before putting them down as a referee.

If they say yes, then tell them the role you’re applying for as well as when and how they may be contacted by the hiring manager. Then prepare them for what is to about come, when their likely to be contacted and the types of questions they’re likely to be asked.

Give them a copy of your resume and mention to them the skills or qualities you want them to highlight. Also consider providing them with the target job description so they can tailor their answers to the position. Remind them of what you would like them to say, for instance what you did well and your responsibilities etc.

Finally, ask how they would like to be contacted, the best way and at what times. Mention this to the recruiter.

All of this helps to ensure that they are not caught off guard and are ready ‘for the call’.


Thank them

Don’t forget to tell your referees how grateful you are for their assistance.


How do recruiters contact a referee

They will either call them by phone or email them. Very rarely do they write to them or visit them at their home or place of work.


What questions do recruiters ask referees?

Typically, they will request information such as:

  • What is their relationship with you?
  • Are/were you a good employee?
  • What are your best professional and personal characteristics?
  • Do they think you will you be a suitable candidate for their vacancy?