A guide to professional reference lists (with examples)
A reference list helps you connect prospective employers with those who are familiar with your skills, experience and work style. Creating and maintaining a current reference list can be a useful resource if you are actively looking for a job. By providing a well-formatted and comprehensive reference list to your prospective employer, you can help create a positive impression that may increase your chances of being hired.
In this article, we explain what a professional reference list, discuss their role in applications, provide information on what to include in your list and offer an example reference list you can use to help write your own.
What is a professional reference list?
A professional reference list completes your candidate profile, along with the CV and cover letter. This document can help employers learn more about you and it can provide a great opportunity to show yourself as thoughtful, proactive and organised. Having your references listed, along with your connection to the reference and details about your work together, can be helpful to the hiring manager and can speed up the hiring and selection process. Some companies might ask for a reference list later in the hiring process to get more context about your candidacy.
A reference from a former employer or coworker can clarify what kind of colleague you are. Many employers are strongly aware of the importance of a culture fit between the organisation and any new employees. A hiring manager is likely to think about your overall fit in the workplace before hiring you. One way to find out more about the way you communicate, handle hardships and interact at work is through references.
Do you need to include a reference list in applications?
Typically, most job listings inform you about the materials they'd like you to providefor your application. When reviewing the job posting, look for materials they request. They might specify the number of references they want you to submit, along with the type. If a job posting doesn't directly ask for a reference list, you might not need to include it in your application.
If you do choose to include references with your application, ensure you ask permission from those you list before including them in your application. By considering the privacy needs of those on your list of references, you can make sure you're not exposing their private contact information without their consent.
Whom should you choose as your references?
If an employer asks you to provide references, it's typically because they want to know what it is like to work with you in a professional and personal manner. How you fit in with other colleagues and how you perform in various situations, especially under pressure, can affect how well you might contribute to the overall work culture. Many employers prefer to talk with someone who is closely familiar with your working style and can evaluate your work outcomes. Depending on the job, the employer may want personal references or even feedback from people you managed.
When putting together your reference list, consider the strategic relevance of the references you pick, not just individually, but as a whole. By providing a diverse set of reference viewpoints, you can show your prospective employer a more complete picture of how you interact in the workplace, how you achieve results and what kind of culture you help create. Here are some different categories you can consider including in your reference list:
Mentors and teachers
Especially relevant to recent graduates and students, consider adding at least one mentor or teacher to your roster of references. These may be formal or informal roles. Early career university professionals may consider asking their former professors for a reference. If you have been in the workforce for some time, consider an informal mentor figure to add to your list. Think of a person who may not have been your direct supervisor, but who has provided you with advice or guidance.
These people are likely to have a perspective of not just your work, but your development trajectory and aptitude. These insights can be useful for hiring managers, especially those looking to fill a role with the expectation of growth and development. By providing this perspective, you can help your potential employer see the longer-term potential in your candidacy. This forward-looking approach can make you more attractive to an organisation.
Potential employers often ask for a direct supervisor or project manager to comment on a candidate's past performance. These people are likely to provide useful information to the hiring manager about your work style, efficiency, communication abilities and specific job-relevant skills. When you put together your reference list, consider these former supervisory figures first. They can speak authoritatively about your job performance. As references, they can help highlight your talents and aptitudes to give the prospective employer confidence in your ability to do a particular job. Typically, these kinds of references comprise the bulk of your reference list.
The increasing presence of remote work and flat organisation styles means that your ability to interact with your coworkers and organise effectively can be more important than ever. Many organisations want to understand how you work in teams and seek to understand the perspective of your teammates. The importance of diversity and a positive employment culture also relies on a company's ability to create a collaborative and supportive environment. Consider adding your former coworkers that can speak to your ability to create these positive and collaborative environments in formal and informal teams.
Some organisations request personal references as well. These can be any people you know outside of your professional life. Often, a friend can give insights into your character and speak on your ability to handle stress and adversity. While personal references are less common than other types, consider adding one to your list to give a well-rounded understanding of your whole person. These personal references may come from former mentors or colleagues in volunteer organisations, or simply as the friends you have in your personal life.
As you grow your career and accept greater responsibility, consider keeping your past employees in mind as references for your next opportunity. These may be formal direct reports or less formal relationships with those whose work you supervised or checked. If you have limited management experience, consider those whom you advised or helped understand tasks or requirements. These perspectives can help a potential employer understand the value you can provide to the organisation as a leader and mentor.
Some employers request references from people you have managed explicitly. Even if the interviewer or job posting does not request one, consider adding a former employee's reference if you feel it is appropriate. The additional information the potential receives may help you stand out from the rest of the pool of applicants. By showing you are aware of the importance of the voices of those under your supervision, you can show strong leadership skills that can give you a competitive edge in the hiring process.
What information should you provide for your references?
Even if the references you provide to your potential employer are long-time colleagues and close friends, they may find it helpful to understand the prospective job and the prospective employer better before providing their reference. They can decide which aspects of your past work history to highlight for the prospective employer.
Here are a few ideas of how you can help your references prepare better for the conversation with a hiring manager:
Consider providing your potential references with the job description for the position for which you are applying. By knowing what the potential employer is seeking in a new hire, your references can proactively highlight the most relevant examples of your work. Specific work duties may vary from company to company, even among jobs that have the same title and seniority. By helping your reference understand the specific requirements of the job you're seeking, you can help filter out less relevant job experience and make the reference as relevant to the potential employer as possible.
Examples of your work
Consider writing an email listing several examples of your professional strengths or successes you would like your reference to highlight in their conversation with the reference checker. By reminding your reference about specific projects you've worked on or milestones you've achieved, you can help ensure your reference mentions important points.
It's also valuable to share when a reference can expect a call from a prospective employer. Keep them updated on when you're interviewing and when the employer asked for their name. This can help them expect a call and be more prepared to have time for the conversation.
Professional reference list example
Try to have your formatting match your other application documents, to provide a sense of cohesion with your application. Here's an example of a reference list you can use as an example:
Former manager, Inter Client Services
Classmate, Johnston College 2019
Former employee, Howl's Construction
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