Who Should You REALLY List As Your Professional References?

Upon reading a job description, you see that it requires at least three references. But you have never needed to provide references before! What should you do? Whom should you put as your reference? What makes a reference professional? 

Let’s start with whom you should not list as a reference. Believe it or not, this list is much longer than that of those you should list. To name a few, you should stay away from including your family, past employers whom you have bad blood with, or employers that you have not worked for in a long time.  

Your parents probably have a lot of good things to say about you. They would mention how you were such a good kid; always doing your chores, getting good grades, and going to bed on time. But, unfortunately, listing family members is an unprofessional move to make when applying for a job. They are usually around you when you are outside of work. Your actions in the workplace regarding the work that you get done, or the way you go about socializing in the workplace can’t be verified by your family. Additionally, there is a bias present with any statement that a family member makes.  

In one of your recent jobs, you may have done some amazing work to benefit the organization. But if you left on bad terms with your previous employer, listing them is not a good idea. It is entirely possible that they may mention the efforts you made to benefit the organization, but whatever negatives that were left unresolved prior to your leaving may be brought up as well. If you would like to give a good first impression, it is best to leave out employers that you are no longer on good terms with.  

Along with connections that you are no longer on good terms with, it is almost equally as unwise to add a professional reference from an organization that you haven’t been employed at for more than five years. In five years, you have more than enough time to make new connections in the workplace. By using outdated references, there is nobody that can validate that you have done any credible work that is relevant to the job you are applying for within recent years.   

So, who should you add to your list of references when applying for a job?  

You should add those who you have made a genuine connection with, especially if it was in a professional setting. It’s one thing to add someone from your past, but it makes all the difference if you got along well with who you have added.  

Think back to an organization that you have worked for in the past five years. Can you confidently say that your supervisor/employer will speak positively of you? Adding a past employer whom you impressed with your work is an excellent idea. As someone who oversaw you, they are easily one of the best individuals that you can include as a reference. The praise that they gave you while you worked for them will come back again when the hiring manager contacts them to ask about you.  

Additionally, past coworkers and colleagues are a top-tier reference to use. Not only did they observe how you work in a professional setting, but they also had the chance to work with you. They know what it is like to work together with you in a team effort towards a common goal, and have witnessed first-hand how you handle situations that require problem-solving. 

Depending on how old you are, or when the last time you took classes was, you can include your teachers or professors. The instructors that you met with after class to help you understand the material, the teacher that could always rely on you to have the correct answer during class, or the professor who was thoroughly impressed by the amount of detail you put into that final paper make for excellent references.  

If you volunteer on the weekends, a reference that you can list is the project coordinator, another position holder on staff, or someone else who is also regularly involved if you have gotten to know them. They’ll be able to go into depth on the details of the cause(s) that you support as well as how much time outside of work you spend giving back to the community. 

Don’t really volunteer on the weekend? How about your social life? Using close friends shouldn’t be your first choice, and they aren’t as great of a pick as a past employer. But if you don’t have enough ideal professional references, and you need to resort to friends, you should list twice as many. A close friend can inform the hiring manager on what you are like outside of work. Friends can mention your commitment to going to the gym regularly for your physical health, how you let them stay on their couch when they had nowhere to go, the time you saved someone from choking in college, etc. (On the basis that they are not lying of course)  

Finally, when you apply for a job that asks for references, make sure that you ask the people you would like to include if they are okay with it. It is not polite to give away someone’s personal information unknowingly, and it looks very unprofessional if the hiring manager calls/emails one of your references and they were not told that you gave away their email and/or phone number. 

Written by:

Spencer Ford

Marketing Contributor


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