How To Get a Great Professional Reference in 5 Steps

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 29 September 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When applying for a role, it's important to have strong references to give hiring managers more input about who you are and why you're a good candidate. Asking former coworkers what it's like to work with you can help the employer understand more about your social and personal dynamics in the workplace that you can't necessarily explain in your CV. As you're going through the hiring process, keep in mind that hiring managers may ask you for professional references, so it may help to find some in advance.

In this article, we explain why you need this kind of reference and how to find the best possible references to help in your job search.

What is a professional reference?

A professional reference is a piece of feedback your prospective employer gathers from your former colleagues, subordinates and supervisors. These references serve as the basis for a prospective employer's view of your professional strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and potential culture fit. This kind of reference can also come in the form of a pre-written document authored by a former colleague. The reference doesn't necessarily have to come from someone within your former employer's organisation, so you could have a vendor or client play this role in your job search as well.

Whatever form your reference takes, make sure to advise and prepare the person providing you with the reference to help your hiring process go smoothly. Ask your references in advance to ensure they're comfortable talking to potential employers, and let them know who may be contacting them if they agree. You can also explain what position you're seeking and what the potential employer values. Giving this kind of guidance can help frame your working experience and let your reference know which aspects of working together to emphasise.

Related: What Is a Letter of Recommendation and How Can You Get One?

Why do you need a professional reference?

Working within a team often requires more than individual skills and qualifications to achieve results. A reference can help provide a hiring manager with insights into what it's like to work with you. Being able to learn about your communication style and priorities at work can help the employer make sure that you would fit well into the organisation before making a hiring decision.

Also, while your choice of reference and advice to your reference provider are within your control, you are still not entirely in control of what information your reference provides. To a hiring manager or recruiter, this version of you can provide valuable insight into the level of culture fit you may have with their organisation. To show yourself as the best possible candidate, having others vouch for your skills and professional abilities is a great way to get ahead of others who want the job.

Related: How To Create an Effective Reference Letter

How is a professional reference different from a personal reference?

A personal reference, also known as a character reference, provides feedback on how you conduct yourself in your personal life. A personal reference would be relevant for the jobs where having an upstanding moral character is key to success, but any organisation can benefit from learning about your character. These references may come from friends or neighbours. You might also be asked for an academic reference, which is usually given by a mentor or professor and attests to your academic rigour, curiosity and ability to conduct excellent scholarship.

In comparison, a reference that's professional concentrates on work performance and the way you affect the work-related performance of your team. This reference is different from a personal or academic reference and conveys information that's primarily related to your work performance and teamwork abilities. This reference is likely to talk about your leadership and communication style, as well as your ability to work under pressure and help lead your team through points of friction.

Related: What Are Personal References and Why Do You Need Them?

How to get a great reference

The first step to getting an effective professional reference is to identify a few of your former colleagues and supervisors with whom you've worked closely. Try to select colleagues from your most recent projects and those that are most relevant to your desired position. Once you have a list of people to ask, keep the following steps in mind to help you get the best possible references:

1. Match the reference to the prospective job

As you're building the list of your potential references, make note of which ones can provide the best-fitting reference for the position. If you're applying for several jobs, pick the reference based on how closely your previous work with them resembles the job expectations of your prospective employer. If you have examples from your shared work history that show your ability to achieve success in highly relevant activities, make sure that the reference is aware of these examples before speaking to the hiring manager.

Also, consider the outcomes of the projects you collaborated on with your reference. If you have an example of a successful project that fits the job, consider leading with this reference, even if a more recent one is available. Create a ranked list of several potential reference candidates, and have a conversation with each of them to determine the best fit. Some employers ask for multiple references, but this selection process is useful even if you only need one.

2. Keep a list of reliable references ahead of time

Asking for a reference after not seeing or speaking with someone for years may not always be ideal. To make sure that you have a great reference prepared for your next job application, take time to proactively develop and maintain relationships with your coworkers. Not only can your workmates see you in a more positive light during and after working with you, but having an existing relationship can make asking them to provide a reference feel a lot more natural.

Professional social media platforms make keeping up with your former colleagues almost effortless. By proactively networking online, you can celebrate the victories of your former colleagues and maintain a relationship with those who could provide a strong recommendation for you for the appropriate job prospect. Additionally, maintaining a healthy professional network may also help you learn about and find potential job openings.

3. Advise your prospective reference of your plans

Let the person you're listing as a reference know that you would like to share their contact details, and ask for their permission to do so. Help them prepare to give a great reference on your behalf by letting them know which position you're applying for and what skills the potential employer seems to value based on the job listing. By providing your reference with specific keywords and themes your future employer may find valuable, you can help your colleague shape a message that gives relevant information to the hiring manager during their conversation.

By asking politely ahead of time, you can also gauge the level of comfort that your reference has with sharing their experience of working with you. While you may have the impression that your colleague is likely to praise you if asked, your reference may have a different opinion on working with you. By having this conversation ahead of time, you can learn whether your choice of reference is misplaced, which gives you time to find a more suitable candidate to serve as your reference.

Related: Practical Tips You Can Use When Asking for a Job Reference

4. Make sure to mind their schedule

Confirm with your reference what contact information is best to share. Additionally, take note of any specific dates and times that are best for getting in touch. By providing this information to your prospective employer and your reference, you can make the process easier and help ensure their conversation goes smoothly and doesn't inconvenience anyone. This can help make sure that the recommendation leaves a good impression.

5. Provide concrete examples to your reference

To help your reference give a good recommendation, provide them with relevant examples to use in the conversation or email with your prospective employer. Casually mentioning your shared projects and achievements can make it easier for your reference to present relevant examples. By helping them structure the reference that they give on your behalf, you are actively reducing the amount of work your former colleague has to do and giving them yet another positive experience from which to draw on when discussing your professional strengths.

It's not uncommon for some supervisors or colleagues to simply ask you what to say to the prospective employer. In these cases, having a prepared list can make your reference feel less pressure to come up with something on their own. Consider creating a list of qualities you hope to show your prospective employer, as well as specific examples from your shared work history with your colleague.

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