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What Are Professional References?

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After applying, interviewing, and waiting, you got a job offer. But the written offer notes it’s contingent on your professional references, and you have no idea who to ask or how to get started.

Whether you’re a student who’s never worked before or someone with several jobs under your belt, searching for professional references can make anyone a little nervous. However, asking the right people and using the right approach will ensure you have professional references that sing your praises and help you land the job.

In this guide we cover:

What Is a Professional Reference?

Professional references are people who can speak to your skills and abilities as a professional. While professional references are often people you’ve worked with (or for) in a paid setting, people you’ve worked with in unpaid roles (like volunteering) can also be professional references.

What Is a Personal Reference?

Personal references are people who can speak to your personal traits, like being dependable, honest, or friendly. While these are excellent soft skills that can help you on the job, employers want to know about the hard and soft skills you possess, like how you juggle tasks, handle competing deadlines, or work with clients. That’s why they often ask for professional references.

Why You Need Professional References

Your job offer is almost always contingent on having positive professional references. While you may not have needed them to land a summer or part-time job in high school or college, when it comes to most postsecondary jobs, you’ll need at least two to three professional references to secure the role.

The employer wants to ensure you’ll be a good hire who performs well in the job. While your education and experience demonstrate your ability, Olga Eippert, director of people operations at Forage, says employers use professional references to verify candidate claims. “Do they really have the knowledge and skills to do the job, and are they a good fit for the role?”

Professional references are also used to gauge your potential beyond your application. Robert Sabori, recruitment coordinator at Forage, adds that references allow employers to “gain insight into someone’s professional trajectory and career growth. You learn more about what a candidate currently does and how they could contribute in the role they’re being considered for.”

Who to Use as a Professional Reference

Coworkers and supervisors from part-time, full-time, or even seasonal jobs can act as professional references. While you don’t have to ask a supervisor to be your reference, Elisa Pineda, senior recruiter at Forage, says candidates should have at least one supervisor and one coworker reference.

“Having one of each provides a different point of view because the relationships are different,” Pineda says. “How someone interacts with their environment and team is different from a manager’s perspective compared to a colleague.”

While you can ask someone at your current job to act as a professional reference, use caution if you do. If you ask your boss to be a reference and for some reason, things don’t work out, you may damage your working relationship. They may consider you a “flight risk,” which could create an uncomfortable work environment. Current coworkers are excellent alternatives to your supervisor, as long as they can keep the information about your job search and pending offer under wraps until you’re ready to resign.

To avoid any possible problems at your current job, it’s best to use former supervisors and coworkers as your professional references. However, if that’s not in the cards for you and you can’t or don’t want to use anyone you’re currently working with, you can still find professional references to help you land the role.

Supervisors and coworkers from unpaid internships or volunteer experiences can act as professional references. Students could consider asking a professor who supervised their work (like a long-term project or experiment). While none of these scenarios are paid jobs, they are all work experiences that can help the employer better understand how you’ll perform as an employee.

How to Ask for a Professional Reference

No matter who you ask to be a professional reference, it’s essential to ask them as professionally as possible. Whether you ask virtually, over the phone, or in person, follow these tips.

1. Consider Who to Ask

Make sure the person acting as your reference is someone who will say positive things about you and your abilities. For example, if you had a rocky relationship with a former boss, you might be better off asking someone else, even if that individual is your only “real” manager. If you’re not positive an individual will give you a glowing reference, it’s better to skip them and move on to someone else.

2. Give Them an Out

Some people have a blanket policy that they won’t give professional references for anyone. Other people may not have the time. Whatever the reason, give your potential professional reference a way out.

For example, you might include something like, “Please don’t feel pressured to act as a professional reference for me. I completely understand if you can’t.” This makes it easier for the person to say no if they have to.

3. You May Need to Ask Twice

The best time to line up your professional references is long before you need them. Ideally, you’ll network and connect with people while you’re working with or for them. During that time, you might feel comfortable asking them to act as a reference for you in the future, and that’s a fantastic time to ask.

But if that feels awkward to you, it’s also OK to wait until you or that person is leaving the company (whether that’s due to moving to a new job, an internship ending, or something else). Even if you don’t need the person to act as a professional reference now, you’ll likely need them in the future. If they agree, make sure to keep in touch!

Finally, you likely won’t need a professional reference until you’re offered the job. At that time, you should reach out to your professional reference and ask if they are still up to the task. The one drawback, though, is that you may have to wait a few days before supplying your references to the employer while waiting for your references to get back to you.

Instead, you may want to give your references a heads-up as you begin the job search. This way, you can send the contact information to the employer sooner and it gives you time to find alternative references in case someone is unwilling or unavailable when you need it.

How to List References on a Resume

These days, it’s expected that you have two to three professional references ready to go when you get a job offer. However, some employers do require candidates to provide references during the early application process, either on your resume or as you fill out the company application.

How to Give Your References to a Potential Employer

Notify your references that they can expect a phone call or email from your potential new employer. If you haven’t been in contact with your references during your job search, let them know before you give the reference to the employer.

If you don’t give them a head’s-up, they may be caught off guard when a random person from a random company contacts them for information about you. While they still may have only positive things to say about you, a reference that’s surprised may be a red flag to your potential employer.

Give the employer your reference’s contact information. This includes their name, phone number, and email address, as well as their preferred method of contact. You should also include any pertinent information the employer may need (like your reference’s work hours or scheduled vacations).

Finally, Eippert advises candidates to provide more references than the employer requests. This way, if one reference is difficult to get in touch with, the employer has other options. She also advises candidates to consider providing references even when the employer doesn’t specifically ask for them: “It shows that you have initiative.”

What Employers May Ask Your References

While every employer has their method for conducting background checks, there are a few common questions you can expect a hiring manager to ask your references:

    • What were the individual’s job responsibilities?
    • Was the individual successful in their role? Why or why not?
    • Was the person a valuable team member? Why or why not?
    • What were their weaknesses or areas that need improvement?

Notice that it’s almost impossible to answer these questions with a simple yes or no. When someone checks your references, they are trying to get as much information about you as possible. While you’ve likely provided people who will only give you a glowing reference, there may be times when a hiring manager asks follow-up questions to learn even more.

Sabori says this probing allows companies to gain more insight and gives the reference a chance to highlight the candidate’s strengths or even reveal areas where the candidate may need support. Pineda adds that if a reference notes a candidate’s weakness, that doesn’t mean they won’t get the job. Instead, it’s often something the new company should be aware of and could provide additional support for.

The Professional References You Don’t Provide

Technology and social media have made the world more connected than ever. As a result, it’s easy for hiring managers to check the professional references you provide as well as the professional references you don’t provide.

Commonly referred to as back-channel references, hiring managers do some research to uncover any connections they might use as an “informal” reference for you. For example, a hiring manager might check your LinkedIn profile to see who you and they have in common, then reach out to that person.

As Eippert notes, back-channel references can be more effective for the hiring manager than the ones you provide. “The reference you provide will almost always be positive,” Eippert says. “Back-channel references are more likely to provide ‘real’ feedback.”

Pineda adds that back-channel references are not uncommon, and sometimes the information from those references is less than stellar. While there’s nothing you can do about them, Eippert advises everyone to be aware of who they connect with to make sure those people know the real professional you.

Landing the Job

While your skills and abilities will help you land an interview and job offer, your professional references could play a crucial role in whether or not you start the job. Lining your references up early and being a stellar worker will help ensure you’ve got references ready to go when you need them.

Looking for another way to impress employers? Consider a free Forage virtual work experience program to demonstrate to employers you’ve got what it takes to get the job done.

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