References can help you land your next job by corroborating the personal strengths and professional skills you bring to the role. But you may be unclear on how references should fit into the broader scheme of your job search materials and application, and whether you should include references on your resume.
Read the following guide for a clear breakdown of how to handle professional references.
Who to Consider as Possible References
Anyone who can speak about your skills and successes in the type of work you’re now pursuing can be used as a reference. Typically, this will be past or present colleagues and not friends or family. Even if your relevant work has been at your family’s business, try to use coworkers you aren’t related to as references since they’re seen as a more neutral source of information about you.
It’s generally better to have your references be people from your recent experience who have supervised you in some capacity. But neither of these qualities is more important than these people being able to speak about your relevant experience. For example, say you’ve worked in human resources for the past three years but now want to move back to your previous career in sales. In that case, your most recent supervisor may be less pertinent as a potential reference than a sales or marketing colleague of yours from five or six years ago.
What Details to Include About Each Reference
It can be tricky to round up information that’s all current and accurate, but always make it as easy as possible for the hiring manager to contact any of your given references. Make sure to include:
- Their first and last name.
- Their current email address, phone number, and location. You don’t need to give their street address, but include city and state so hiring managers can know the reference’s time zone and probable business hours.
- Their job title and company name from whenever you worked together (if they no longer hold this position, put “Former” in front of the title). It’s not strictly necessary to give their current job status – what’s more important is drawing a clear link between the person and the work history information on your resume.
When to Submit Your List of References
Submit your references as soon as you’re asked for them, but not sooner. Most job postings don’t ask for references, so you shouldn’t include them in your initial application. But do spend the time now to draw up your list of preferred references, gain their permission, and gather their relevant information. Taking these steps now keeps you from having to scramble for references later when a promising job lead requests them.
Where to Place Your List of References
Since you won’t often include references in your normal application documents, put them in a separate document. Just save a copy of your resume, delete all but your contact header at the top, and enter each person’s details using the same font and general format scheme on your resume. If your job titles are in bold and company names are in italic on the resume, here’s how your references page might look:
123 Bedford Ave., New York, NY 12345 | (123) 456-7890 | [email protected]
Operations Manager, ABC Company, Inc.
Former Sales Manager, XYZ Corporation
Former Sales Associate, LMN Company, Inc.
San Francisco, CA
Why Your Resume Shouldn’t Include References
You may be wondering why you’re supposed to leave references off your resume. Even if an employer didn’t request them, references couldn’t hurt your overall candidacy, right? The reason is that references fall outside the normal focus and purpose of a resume.
Fundamentally, your resume should be your answer to a hiring manager’s question: “What qualifications do you bring to the role I’m trying to fill?” You can leave out pretty much everything that falls outside the scope of that answer, aside from the very basics on any recent unrelated jobs.
Viewed in this light, your reference details are something of a non sequitur as they don’t answer the question at hand. Imagine a hiring manager sitting across the desk from you in an interview, and saying “So tell me a little about your qualifications.” You might reply by talking about your years of related work experience, a recent achievement, or a key certification you’ve earned – all things naturally featured on a resume. But it’s unlikely you’d reply by saying “Joseph Corbin, Operations Manager of ABC Company, Inc., whose contact information is [email protected] and (123) 456-7890, likes me.”
Another way to remember this rule: If your overall job application is the case you’re making that you should be hired, think of the resume as your opening argument, which is clear, compelling, and focused on essential points. In the same way you wouldn’t call witnesses to your opening argument, you don’t put references in your resume – they’re important, but they come later.
Side note: You can also omit the common resume line “References available upon request” for the same reason and because that’s already assumed by the hiring manager.
How to Cultivate and Maintain Valuable References
It is important to gain any permission before you cite anyone as a reference. As soon as anyone agrees to be your reference, do these three things in order:
- Thank them heartily.
- Tell them about your job search goals if you haven’t already — consider jotting down some notes on your target job title, duties, industry, or company size.
- Give them a copy of your current resume.
Giving the person your resume stops well short of telling them what to say on your behalf, which you definitely shouldn’t do. But it does give them helpful context on how you’re presenting yourself and the things they may be asked about by a hiring manager. It also ensures your reference and the hiring manager are on the same page (literally) throughout any correspondence they have about your background details.
Once you accept your next job, let all your references know the good news, and thank them again for their support. You might not even know whether they were contacted, but no matter.
At this point, you may understandably wish to take some of your references out to lunch, or otherwise return their favor in some direct way. But think twice about having a quid pro quo dynamic with your references – it can cause a conflict of interest that muddles any future reference requests that take place between you. Better to simply appreciate each reference for what it is: a genuine favor, an account of your prior success, and a vote of confidence in your future work.
And for those colleagues who’ve worked closely with you and know your strengths, just hearing they helped you take the next step will be their best reward of all.