Here's How to Use Your References to Land Any Job

Here's How to Use Your References to Land Any Job
by Lisa Crocco
October 27, 2015
Considering skipping that reference list? Bad move. Put in some extra effort to take your application to the next level.
After combing through job boards, finally finding one that interests you, and getting your resume and cover letter ready, the last thing you’re probably interested in is assembling a reference list. You may even think: “this hiring manager will never reach out to my references because they never do.”

Often reference lists go un-updated with old employers and their former information, or more subtly, they don't include the people who will help you land a new job. Testimonials from past colleagues can either land that offer or ruin your chances.

We know the power of an awesome reference list, so we’ve put together a list of do’s and don’ts to help you update. Get those names organized, then go get it, girl!


Before you add your former employer or professor to your reference list, be sure to ask them for their permission. We've all heard this rule before, but it's harder than it sounds when you're strapped for time or uncomfortable with asking. Give them a call or shoot them a quick email with some specifics: explain the type of jobs you are applying for, why you're choosing them, and then ask if it would be okay to list them as a reference.

You may feel awkward about reaching out, but it's much worse if they receive a call from a future employer without notice and, taken off guard, don't know what to say about your experience and work ethic. Giving them the heads up allows them time to think of what to say when being asked.

Need help? Use the following format to help you secure a reference:

“Hello [insert former employer here],

Hope you're doing well! It’s been awhile since my last day working with you at [company name], and I remember those days fondly. I am currently seeking new employment and applying to jobs in [field name]. As you may remember, I have always been passionate about [field name or work type] and believe moving into this area would be a great fit. Since you have worked with me extensively on [list specific projects] and have seen my work ethic first-hand, I would appreciate if I could list you as a reference when submitting my application. Please let me know if you are willing. Coffee is my treat next time we get together to catch up! Thank you.”


This may also seem like a given, but it’s definitely an important one to reiterate. If you left a job on less than great terms, lacked a good working relationship with any former employer/employee, or question what that person may say about you when talking with a recruiter, even if you're just not sure how well they remember you—then don't add them to your reference list. Stick with a few solid people who know your skill set, work ethic, personality, and who genuinely like you as a person. These people will serve as rockstar references. Poor reviews are an obvious no-no, but listing a dozen people who will give you average reviews also reflects negatively. Instead, provide a few awesome references who you're confident will provide the recruiter with great information. 


If your current place of employment is unaware you're seeking new job opportunities, listing them as a reference would be a horrible way for them to find out. It’s not only unprofessional, but it will damage your relationship and possibly cost you the company you've applied to.

Worst case scenario: upon receiving a reference call for you, a company might let you go since they assume you are quitting your job with them anyways and need to find a replacement. Even if you've already given your current employer your two-weeks notice, err on the side of caution since your employer may feel bitter or confused about you leaving.

Ask yourself these questions if you are on the fence about listing your current employer:
  • Are they aware you're leaving the company?
  • Did you ask them for permission before listing them as a reference?
  • What was your work relationship with them before telling them you are leaving the company?
  • What is your work relationship with them after telling them you are leaving the company?
  • Are they encouraging your professional growth and are glad you are seeking new/better opportunities?


Your future employer wants to see variety in the types of employment, employers, contacts, and professional references they see listed. If you have six people listed from the same company, the hiring manager might think that you lack connections and successful partnerships throughout your career. 

Those six references might be awesome, but limit it to one or two per workplace. Mix it up. If you don't have other former employers, consider including professors, internship supervisors, mentors, friends—anyone familiar with your work experience even if it’s not in the field you are applying for. They can still attest to the different skills you have that make you an ideal candidate.

And one last don't: leave off any family members from your reference list no matter how aware of your work experience they may be.

Ever made a reference list gaffe? Tell us about it in the comments.