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How to Find Professional References to Land Your Dream Gig

Last updated: October 31, 2019
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You may have the perfect skills for a freelance gig on Upwork or the best personality for a remote customer service job, but in order to make the opportunity yours, you need proof that you’re the right fit. For many prospective employers, the best proof comes in the form of a professional reference.

Whether you’re applying to a 9-to-5 career or seeking new clients for your business, your professional references can make or break your job search. To nail down the perfect references, you need to understand who your potential employers will trust and who will be able to give you the ultimate review.

In this article, we’ll guide you through how to select your professional reference and offer strategies you can use to ask for a job reference and get rave reviews.

What Are Professional References?

woman typing on laptop

Professional references are simply people who can vouch for your work ethic, skills, accomplishments, and even your personality in the workplace. When a potential employer asks for your list of references, you’ll typically be expected to provide the following information about 2-5 people who can attest that you’re a great asset for a client or a team:

  • Their name
  • Their relationship to you
  • Their job title or company
  • Their contact information (phone numbers are often preferred)

While the term “professional reference” is sometimes used interchangeably with “personal reference,” there actually is a significant difference between the two. Be aware of how to distinguish between these types of references by using the following definitions:

  • A professional reference is someone who has worked directly with you in a professional setting. They should have a strong understanding of your strengths at work, what you’ve contributed, and how you perform on a day-to-day basis. This reference may also be called upon to generally confirm your work history.
  • A personal reference is someone who has seen your soft skills and personality in play, though not necessarily in the workplace. These are more likely to be people you’ve worked with in community organizations or coworkers who you’ve worked with much less. Personal references aren’t as strong when it comes to vouching for your skills, but hiring managers may request these as character references to gauge your culture fit and teamwork abilities.

Who Can I Use as a Professional Reference?

Professional References: business meeting

Not everyone who can vouch for your skills is the best reference for your job application. Most hiring managers seek references who can give an unbiased view of your performance, which means your friends and family members should definitely be taken off your list.

Here are some of the best people to reach out to for a trustworthy reference:

  • Former supervisors
  • Former clients
  • Current clients (if it’s understood that you’re seeking additional gigs)
  • Former colleagues who were on your team
  • Advisers or leaders in your professional organizations
  • Current career coaches
  • Former subordinates (if applying to a management position)

If you don’t have extensive work experience, you can consider using your mentors, professors, or volunteer coordinators as solid references.

When compiling your list of references, be sure to select people you’ve maintained a good relationship with, especially if more than a year has passed since you last worked with them. Preferably, you should have worked with these individuals for at least six months within the past five years.

In addition, try to build a diverse list of professional references who can give you glowing reviews from various angles. For example, a former employer may be able to attest to your accomplishments and skills, but your career coach may better understand your work ethic and commitment to growth. In general, references with a variety of leadership titles can catch your potential employer’s eye.

How to Ask for a Job Reference

Professional References: man writing on paper at table

Asking for a job reference may sound like an awkward chat, but giving the people on your reference list a heads-up is the best way to ensure they actually play their part. If your former boss or colleague doesn’t anticipate a call, they may be caught off guard with little to say or worse — they may not pick up at all. In rare cases, employers may have policies against giving in-depth references beyond the facts, so knowing ahead of time will allow you to select stronger contacts for your reference check.

Here are a few pointers for when asking someone to be your professional reference:

  • Contact your potential references as soon as possible. The earlier a reference knows they’ll be contacted, the better prepared they will be and the faster you’ll know if you need an alternate reference. You can simply send them an email or give them a call if asking in person doesn’t seem feasible.
  • Tell them what they can expect. Your professional references should have general expectations about when they’ll be contacted and what company they’ll be contacted by. Give them a quick run-down about what the role involves and how your experiences align.
  • Double check their information. While you may have your previous employer’s cell phone number, they might prefer to get a call through their office phone or receive an email. In addition, you should double check their title to give your potential employer the most accurate information.
  • Follow up. Thank your references and let them know if you get a job offer. This will help you sustain your relationship and keep them on your reference list for future gigs and job applications.

Frequently Asked Questions

Professional References: laptop computer and notepad

Compiling a list of professional references is a standard need when you’re going through any company’s hiring process. To help you select your professional references, here are our answers to some common questions:

1. Can I use my current employer as a professional reference?

In most cases, this isn’t a good idea. You don’t want to tarnish your relationship in the event that you don’t get the job and want to stay on the team. Plus, if you need to use them as a professional reference in the future, you don’t want them to mention that you were openly searching for jobs while on their team.

However, if you have already turned in your letter of resignation and are sure that you’ve sustained a great relationship with your employer and your company, they can be a great reference for your list. Using your current employer as a reference may also be OK if you’re an intern, as your employer likely expects you to move on and is probably rooting for you to succeed, too.

2. Will I ever be asked to provide letters of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are rarely requested by hiring managers nowadays, as a call will usually suffice. Plus, they’d rather be sure that the right person is giving them answers over the phone, through email, or through an email-authenticated survey, since reference letters could easily be ghostwritten by assistants or even the person applying.

Still, applicants in specific industries like education and healthcare may be surprised by a recommendation letter request once in a while. If your prospective employer does request a letter of recommendation, make sure to notify your professional reference at least two weeks early. In addition, email them your resume and a few details they can use as guidelines while writing the letter. Also, when possible, let your reference know who to address the letter to so you can avoid a generic “dear hiring manager” greeting.

3. What happens if my professional references don’t pick up the phone?

Most employers ask for several references to make up for the very common possibility that a reference or two will miss their phone call or email. However, if none of your professional references answer the call or complete their reference forms, this can actually hurt you during the hiring process, since your prospective employers won’t have anyone vouching for your work history or skills.

This emphasizes the importance of reaching out to your references ahead of time, so they’re more likely to check their voicemails and call back as needed.

Get the Job You Want

When you’re applying to a new job or seeking an opportunity to work with a new client, you should be prepared for them to ask for your professional references. These references will give them peace of mind that they’re about to invest in the right person for the team — as long as you know who to ask and how to ask them.

If you want to be prepared for situations where a recommendation letter may be needed in place of a general call, read our article on how to ask for a letter of recommendation, so you’re ready if the time comes.

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