Learn About Professional References

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What is a professional reference? You may see a notation in a job posting to provide professional references with your resume or on a job application, or you may be asked for a list of references after you have interviewed with a company. Who should you use to provide those references?

What a Professional Reference Is

A professional reference is a recommendation from a person who can vouch for your qualifications for a job.

A professional reference for an experienced worker is typically a former employer, a colleague, a client, a vendor, a supervisor, or someone else who can recommend you for employment.

Recent college graduates might also tap professors, coaches, and college personnel who were advisers for your activities. The key is picking references who have observed you acting in a productive capacity where you displayed your skills and credentials for employment.

These differ from personal or character references because the professional reference is speaking mainly to the applicant’s employability and work-related qualities, as opposed to their personal or character traits.

The Ideal Reference

Consider the qualifications for your target job as you are choosing individuals to act as your references.  Ask yourself who can vouch for the skills and attributes in your background that are most critical for success in that job.

So your mix of references might differ based on the varied requirements of the positions for which you are applying. 

The ideal reference will be able to speak in a very specific way about your assets and back up her assertions with examples from your work.  An individual who can only provide vague positive references to your strengths may be less convincing.

 So you want to place a priority on people who know your work quite well as opposed to picking the most prestigious or highest ranking individual.

Think of your most successful roles first and consider individuals who can attest to how you engineered those achievements.  For example, even if you had a close relationship with your academic adviser but took four courses with her and only got C and B grades, you might not select her as a reference. Instead, you might opt to tap another professor for whom you earned two A's, as long as she knows you well enough.

Make sure that the individual you select is comfortable providing a positive recommendation.  Many candidates make the mistake of assuming a person will provide a strong endorsement when they are only prepared to provide a somewhat positive evaluation of your performance. 

Find Out What They Are Going to Say

The best way to gain a perspective on how a prospective reference might represent your background is to ask them to compose a recommendation for your file. Try writing a recommendation for your references on LinkedIn and then ask them to return the favor.  

When requesting that an individual to act as a reference, ask "Are you comfortable providing a very positive recommendation for me for a financial analyst job, I'm trying to make a strong case for my candidacy?" Making your request in writing is usually the best approach so a reluctant individual can decline more comfortably.

If you're concerned about getting a bad reference, here are some tips for handling them. You may be able to offset a negative reference from an employer with a positive one from a professional connection.

How to Provide References to Employers

When you apply for a job, you may be asked for a list of professional references either after a job interview, or in some cases when you apply for a job. Here's how to handle it:

  • When you provide a professional reference to a prospective employer, include the person's name, job title, company, address, phone number, and email address.
  • Be sure that you have the person's permission to use them as a reference before you give out their contact information.
  • Keep your references appraised of your progress with the hiring process and give them a heads up if you think they might be contacted. If there are particular issues that have come up during your interview let your references about those concerns. They may be able to address the issue during a reference check.
  • A well-prepared reference will usually be able to provide a more detailed and convincing recommendation when contacted.