Imagine you’re browsing online to buy a book, and you come across three options. Two have a decent number of reader reviews, while one doesn’t have any.

Which one will you consider purchasing? Most people would choose one with some social proof from previous readers. Social proof is a clear indicator of trust and credibility.

Similarly, in the corporate world, professional references serve as social proof for people who intend to land their next role or apply for a university program. It builds trust and credibility for their expertise, education, qualifications, and achievements.

However, you may have many questions on your mind. What are professional references? How you can get them? In this article, we are going to dive deeper into professional references, including:

  • Professional references meaning
  • References for a job
  • Do employers call references?
  • Who qualifies as a professional reference?
  • What should you include in a reference?

Let’s dive into what a professional reference is and the right way to request one to boost your candidature and help you achieve professional success.

What are professional references?

Professional references are people who can support your work ethic, performance, skills, and qualifications. They are individuals that you have worked or interacted with throughout your professional experience. Professional references can be any or all of the following:

  • Current or ex-supervisor at work
  • Ex-colleague or peer
  • Current or past client
  • Vendor
  • Professor, trainer, or instructor
  • Present or former coach or mentor at work or university
  • An external stakeholder you frequently interacted with

Why is a reference for a job important?

Most professionals are well aware of their unique skills and strengths and are able to showcase that in their career documents, such as a resumé or LinkedIn profile. However, employers prefer having an external and unbiased account of your qualifications and experiences.

Getting a colleague or ex-supervisor to vouch for your skills and capabilities helps employers determine whether you’ll make a good match for their open position. Employers may also check professional references to:

  • Confirm that the skills, qualifications, and experience of the hire match the job requirements
  • Adhere to workplace policies, industry regulations, or laws
  • Gain more information about the hire’s integrity and work ethic
  • Determine if the new hire will fit well into the company culture
  • Safeguard the company’s reputation

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey confirms that 87% of employers check professional references before hiring a candidate. That’s a solid reason to get a decent number of professional references if you’re looking for a new job.

Who should you use as a professional reference?

Professional work references can be crucial for job applications. It is essential to ensure that your references can speak positively about you and your suitability for the role you’ve applied for.

Selecting the right individuals can grant you a place on the coveted shortlist, while unsuitable picks may curtail your chances of making the cut. Since employers want to know your abilities, aptitude, and professional competencies, it is best to choose people who have either worked with you or witnessed your work ethic closely.

If you’re thinking about who can be a professional reference, here’s a list of key people you can start with:


A current or ex-supervisor makes for a great professional reference. Since they’ve observed you at work, they are in a position to recommend you for a job role. However, before you put down your boss as a reference, consider if:

  • They are on good or equitable terms with you
  • They are willing to speak positively about you and your abilities in the workplace
  • They agree to be contacted

Naming your current supervisor on your list of professional references is not a great idea if you’re still employed. In that case, pick an ex-supervisor.


To get an unbiased opinion about the potential hire, some organizations request a minimum of two professional references. If you’ve already got your ex-supervisor as one reference, getting a colleague as the second makes sense.

They’ve seen your work from close quarters and are in a perfect position to validate your abilities for the job. Before picking a colleague, consider if:

  • They’re comfortable recommending you for a job role
  • They have had significant interaction with you at work, even if they aren’t from the same department

Past clients

Choose an appropriate reference who is willing to speak well about you, even if they’re from outside the company.

For example, if you’ve worked as an SAP Consultant, you’ve engaged with client company representatives. Therefore, giving them as a reference is a good idea since they have extensively interacted with you during the project.

Colleagues from volunteer, freelance, and internship projects

If you are applying for your first job, giving references from earlier volunteer or internship positions is a good place to start. Do you have any passion projects or side hustles?

A past client from a freelance project can be a great reference as they can speak about your skills and competencies and how you plan, organize, and execute professional service projects.


For someone with zero work experience, academic references from past instructors, professors, and teachers can be counted as professional references.

It’s best to avoid using your partner, spouse, sibling, or any other family member as a reference, as their opinion may be viewed as biased.

How to ask for professional references

For many people, asking for professional work references can be intimidating. Here are some easy tips that can help you get started:

  • Personalize the request by making it in person, via video chat, or on a phone call
  • Make a polite request without any undue pressure so they are in a position to agree or disagree
  • Give them enough time to make a decision
  • Share a brief update on the kind of roles you’ve been applying for and the career path you’re pursuing (send them a copy of your resumé if required)
  • Let them know if you want to highlight any specific achievements, traits, skills, or capabilities
  • Confirm their contact information, such as phone number and email address

How to use professional references

Once you have your references ready, consider these tips before you share them with the employer:

  • Reach out to your chosen professional references and request permission to include them
  • Inform them in advance that they may be contacted by your prospective employer
  • Guide them on the essential points, skills, or experiences they should talk about to bolster your candidature

Writing a professional reference

In your career, you may be asked to write a professional reference for a peer, friend, or colleague. 

Knowing how to give a professional reference will certainly help and make a positive difference to someone’s career and life. Before you write one, make sure that you are ready to write a good reference for the person. 

Writing a neutral or negative reference is worse than not writing one at all. In that case, declining the reference request may make more sense. Here are some tips for writing a professional reference letter for your contact:

  1. Request the relevant information (ask for their résumé, job description, or school program, depending on the nature of the request — professional or academic)
  2. Mention the duration and capacity in which you’ve known the contact
  3. Provide your contact information, including your email address and phone number
  4. Highlight the traits, skills, and experience that would make your contact an asset for the company (ask the contact for specific skills if required)

Providing a reference to an employer

Many people wonder where they should list professional references on their resumé. Should they be included on the resumé or the cover letter?

Some candidates write “References available upon request” on their resumés. However, this is not required at all. Instead, use the space to describe your accomplishments, achievements, and business impact. Professional references are supposed to be shared with an employer only upon request.

Employers check references just before making a job offer. So, you must have your list of professional references all set to go before you start going on interviews. If your professional work references list is ready, use this simple one-page reference sheet template to organize the information.

Reference sheet template

Create a new Microsoft Word document or Google Doc and title it “References Sheet.”

Start by writing “References for [your name]” and include contact details, followed by the reference information. Having 2-3 references is a good rule of thumb.

Here’s a sample reference sheet checklist to help you create yours: 

References for [your name]

Phone number:
Email address:

Reference 1

Current job title:
Name of the company:
Phone number:
Email address:
Description: (describe how you know the reference in one line)

Get the right references for professional success 

Keeping professional references in a separate sheet showcases your professionalism, sincerity, and thoughtfulness toward your references.

Since the reference sheet contains personal information, it is recommended to share it only when a prospective employer requests it. That typically happens after the interview rounds and before the final offer.

When you share the list of references with the employer, give your references a heads-up that they may be contacted soon. Do not forget to thank them for their support at this crucial time.

Want more information on interview skills? Learn the best practices for video interviews and check out this guide to interview questions.