The Dos and Don’ts of Providing References

Choosing the Best Colleagues for Your Job Application

When you’re applying for a job, you’ll likely be asked to provide references who can attest to your skills, worth ethic and integrity. What these people reveal about you — both in terms of what they do and don’t say — can make a difference in whether you’ll be hired. So it’s extremely important that you choose wisely when deciding who to use as a reference. Before providing that all-important contact information on your next job application, be sure to keep these tips in mind: 

Find colleagues you can trust.

Ensure that your references are not only professional colleagues — previous co-workers, supervisors and clients — but that you’ve also worked closely with those people, and you are completely confident they will provide solid, detailed and positive referrals. For example, “If your previous work environment was toxic for any reason, providing someone [at that job] as a reference can backfire on the candidate,” said Patricia Figueroa, owner of Career Glow Up, a career coaching business. If you aren’t sure that a recent supervisor will say only positive things, it’s better to go back further in your work history to an older job and reach out to a someone from a work environment that was less fraught. 

Pay attention to titles.

Providing references that are higher up in the hierarchy of a company should be a top goal, says Watts. “When I was in graduate school and applying for jobs, I intentionally reached out to the Vice President of Student Affairs and the Director of Greek Life,” she said. “I picked people based on their titles, people I had a relationship with, to help give me credibility.” That also means that it’s important to start building your relationships with higher-ups — or roles you one day aspire to assume —so that you can call on them as a reference when the time comes. 

Give your references a heads up.

It’s common courtesy to let your references know that they will likely be called, but it also allows the reference a chance to be better prepared, and to avoid giving a bland or non-specific response. Career consultant Brianna Watts suggests reaching out to references at least two to four weeks in advance, if possible, and asking if it’s okay for you to use them as a reference in your job search. Advise them of the position you’re applying for and give a bit of background on why you’re interested in the role and what skills you would like them to emphasize. That will allow them to better craft their responses in a way that will be most helpful.  

Always be prepared.

Although you don’t need to state that references are available upon request in a cover letter (Watts says this is an outdated practice), Figueroa suggests keeping an updated list of references on-hand, so you can provide them immediately when asked. This includes ensuring you have your references’ current contact information — including phone number, email address, current company and job title. (Be sure to touch base with your references from time to time so you’ve got their latest info and that you remind top of mind for them.) 

Remember to follow up.

Whether you get the new job or not, it’s important to follow up with your references, says A-J Aronstein, dean of Beyond Barnard, a program that provides career and professional advising resources for students and alumnae of Barnard College. “Send a thank you note to all of your references, and let them know what happened with the job,” he said. That will make it easier for you to ask a reference to vouch for you for a future opportunity.  

Avoid “lukewarm” references.

Even if you’re struggling to come up with three professional references — if you’re in the beginning of your career, for example — it’s best to avoid offering up references that you don’t feel will give you a 100 percent positive referral. Instead, “feel free to provide previous college professors and classmates that you worked on projects with as referrals, if they can still speak to your area of expertise,” said Figueroa.  

Never misrepresent.

Lying on any portion of a job application is a big no-no, including the reference section. “If you are having issues coming up with a supervisory reference — let’s say because the previous work environment was toxic — resist the urge to ask a co-worker or friend to misrepresent their role,” said Figueroa. “Instead, try to find an additional co-worker or client who you can use as a reference. If you can’t do that, if you’ve ever volunteered for an organization, reach out to someone at that organization to provide a referral.” 


Providing references is the best way for employers to get more insight into your work ethic, expertise and personality. But be aware that, no matter what names you offer up, hiring managers may informally reach out others — even if you don’t provide their names. It’s common for employers to look on LinkedIn to find common connections so they can get an unvarnished review.  That’s why it’s important to consider every colleague a potential reference – and to do your best to make sure they would refer you in a positive way. 

– Cheryl Lock