Types of References: a Guide and Tips on Using Them
Updated 28 February 2023
When you're applying for a job, it's important to present yourself in a way that shows you're well-equipped to handle the job's demands and contribute actively to the growth and development of the company. It's also an opportunity to position yourself as a great addition to an organisation. You can effectively convey this in your application and references, the recommendations written by peers or past employers. In this article, we explain the different types of references and referees, why references are needed, how to provide your references and general tips on referencing.
Types of references and referees
Here is an overview of the most common types of references and referees that may help you in your career:
Professional references and referees
A professional reference confirms your claims about your professional achievements, education, experience, habits, skills and character to your prospective employer. The referee writing it may think highly of you, be credible and extol your virtues if a prospective employer asks them information about you. They could have worked with you in a professional setting as a previous manager, mentor, business contact or colleague. A professional referee may be conversant with your skills and be willing to offer you an honest, objective recommendation.
Academic references and referees
An academic reference confirms your claims about your educational credentials and experience to your prospective employer. If educational credentials help you to increase your chances of getting a job, it's useful to provide academic references. Secondary school teachers, university lecturers, staff advisers and people who can confirm your academic achievements are the best kind of academic referees.
Personal or character reference and referees
Personal references are used when you don't have work experience, or it has been a while since your last employment. Your friend, community leader, neighbour, sports coach or religious leader can act as character referees. Choose people who know you well to talk about your good qualities. It helps if your character referee is a respectable member of society, their reputation may serve as a boost to your CV.
How to identify the right type of referees
Getting recommendations from referees that suit your job position gives you an edge over other candidates. Here we discuss how to identify the right references to include in your CV.
1. Make a list of possible references:
Make a list of individuals you know can serve as potential referees. This list may contain people who are willing to give positive recommendations to your employer. These referees may be individuals with good careers in their chosen profession. The quality of referees provided in your references may determine the outcome of your job application.
2. Consider which references are most relevant:
When you're deciding on which referees to pick, think about selecting people who may highlight your strengths to prospective employers. To help boost your chances of getting the job, you need referees who:
are conversant with your work experience, work ethic, education, qualifications and skills
are willing to vouch for your credentials
3. Consider who can give the best answers
Think about who may be best placed to answer the types of questions that a prospective employer may ask, such as:
How do you know this person?
What can you tell me about their skills, abilities, work ethics, punctuality, personal character and conduct with other people?
Can I work with this person?
What makes them the ideal candidate for this position and our organisation?
4. Think about your relationship with a potential referee
Consider the following aspects of your relationship with possible referees:
How long ago did you work with them?
How good was your work relationship with them?
How are they going to explain your attributes to your prospective employer?
If it's appropriate and you're in a position to do so, you may wish to impress a prospective employer by providing the name of a well-respected person as a referee, for instance, the dean of a faculty, director of a famous company or a person who has received an honorary award.
Why are references important?
References can have a significant impact on whether a potential employer ultimately decides to hire you. The primary reasons that references are important are outlined below:
To confirm the authenticity of submitted credentials: Regardless of the role, prospective employers usually prefer relevant referees who can vouch for your work and academic credentials.
To confirm the credibility of work history: References give your CV more credibility because they demonstrate that you're confident enough of your work history and track record to have people who may vouch for you and your suitability.
To confirm the presence of a good relationship between you and your past employers: References also give the impression that you don't have anything to hide (such as a poor track record or nobody willing to recommend you).
How to provide your references
Here are the steps you may want to take to provide a list of references for a potential employer:
1. Write your references with clarity
Write your list of referees on a separate page or at the bottom of your CV. Separate each referee's contact details with a line space for clarity. Be sure to include your referee's official title next to their name. Describe the relationship with your referee, for example, 'Former manager'.
2. Write it in order of importance
List your references in descending order, starting with the person who you think may give you the most positive recommendation. Aim to include a minimum of two referees. If you're applying for a top-level position, have about five to six references available to support your application.
3. Know it's not compulsory to provide references in your CV
There is no obligation to include references on your CV. You can wait for a potential employer to ask you directly for references. If you're not sure who to use as a reference, you can write 'References available on request' at the bottom of your CV.
Sample reference list
List each reference as shown below:
description of the relationship with the referee
reference phone number
reference email address
Student adviser during my bachelor's degree in Accounting
Professor Sharon Elaine
University of Midlands
Midland M99 9YZ
+44 123 456 7890
Human Resources Manager with my previous employer
Human Resources Manager
123 Acacia Venue
Selhurst SH15 6BP
+44 123 456 7890
When to provide references
You may be asked to present your references upfront when you apply for a job or during the application process. Alternatively, the employer may request your cover letter, CV and references as part of the application process. Often prospective employers prefer to contact your referees themselves to be sure to get an objective response.
You want to always have your references already prepared and ready to present upon request. Bring a copy of your referees' contact details to give to companies during your interview if requested.
Related: What to Include in Your CV
Top tips on references
Follow these simple steps when asking for a reference:
Ask for permission: Seek permission from your referees before you pen down their names on your list of references. This allows them to think of your best skills and achievements before your prospective employer contacts them.
Inform references of the job position you're applying for: You can give your potential referees your CV and the job description so they can prepare before being contacted. Informing them ahead helps them identify the skills and qualities that set you apart from other candidates.
Remind your academic references: If you know your academic credentials are your point of strength, remind your lecturers and professors about the courses and projects you were taught, your grades you and the skills you gained.
Give your referees the freedom of choice: Giving your desired referees the option to bow out from providing a reference can save you from a potentially embarrassing situation. Don't force your referees to give recommendations to avoid them giving a bad one which may turn out counterproductive.
Protect the privacy of your referees: Don't give out private addresses, numbers or emails of your referees. Instead, use a work address, email and phone number where applicable.
Show gratitude: It's important you appreciate your referees for agreeing to communicate your positive qualities to your employers. It's essential you make them realise you appreciate their positive endorsement and you're willing to reciprocate the gesture in the future.
Inform them of the job status: It's important you keep them up-to-date about the status of your job application.
What to do when you don't have a referee
If you can't find someone to vouch for you, provide a reasonable explanation for this. Some organisations don't perform reference checks as they can use the internet and social media to research candidates. Since many organisations research you online, make sure that you provide useful information on your online profiles.
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