How to Pick Good References

In the last post, I talked about how bad references can sink your job search. Today, I want to talk about choosing your references and how to make sure you pick well. Of course, this is all predicated on the assumption that you haven’t left a trail of destruction in your professional career or personal life and it is possible to find good references. Most people have good or decent references but picking strategically who to list on your reference page can make a difference in your job search success.

Most employers expect you to provide at least three to five references either on a reference sheet at the first interview or on the job application itself. In deciding who to list as those references, keep the following guidelines in mind:

Keep it professional. People you list as references should have direct knowledge of your professional performance. Character references such as a pastor or a friend have no place on your reference list. (The exception to this would be completion of a background questionnaire for a security clearance.)

Choose supervisors or above. Employers want to talk to people who had direct supervision of you, either as a full-time supervisor or as a project manager. Listing colleagues who are lateral to your position is not helpful.

Ask permission. You should always ask permission of those who you list as references to make sure they are agreeable. Make sure you have the correct contact information for them and ask what contact information they wish for you to use – work or home or both.

Interview your references. When choosing your references, ask each person a few questions to see how they would respond to an employer’s questions. Get a feel for what they have to say about you. A must-ask question is “If you were to name someone else that would have direct knowledge of my work experience, who would you name?” This is a question the employer will ask of them. You want to know who your “developed” references will be in addition to your listed ones.

Check your own references. There are multiple reference services in business now who will check your references to find out what they say about you. The services call your references as a prospective employer and interview them just as an employer would. The service then provides you with a report on the results of the interview. If you think your references might be a problem, this might be a good investment to help you identify problems before they arise.

Consider vendor references. If you worked closely with vendors of your company, they can serve as good references. Having a reference that has a different perspective on your performance, from that of a vendor or even a customer, can provide valuable information to a prospective employer.


  1. Bonnie Moore on October 5, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    What if you have spent the last 10 years in the same company and all of the good professional references are within this company but you cant let anyone in your company know you are looking for a job?

  2. […] three years ago someone on this blog wrote a post titled How to Pick Good References.  It’s a great post, timeless as most everything written still applies (some of the stuff […]

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