The Ultimate Guide to Job References

The Ultimate Guide to Job References

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One of the essential ingredients in a successful job application is your references. Without testimonials from someone who has worked with you, employers are going to be reluctant to take you on board. No one can afford to take a risk on an untried, untested individual. You might think this leads to a frustrating catch 22 – how can you get a job if you have never had a job before? Fortunately, some people can act as your reference outside of employment. You can turn to people who can attest to your character and offer a recommendation on your likely performance in the role.

In this ultimate guide to job references, we explore how you can bolster your college, university, or qualifications from home learning courses. We will show how the right references can demonstrate the qualities that make you a great employee.

What is a job reference?

A reference is a testimonial from a former colleague or a supervisor. They will attest to your skills and the security of your qualifications. It is one employer asking another employer if they should take you on or not. So, when you are asked to provide details of your references, you are being asked to give the names and contact information for people who have worked with you. You should prepare this list of names well in advance of applying for jobs and make sure these people know they may be contacted and questioned about you.

Some companies will email your references with a standard proforma while others may ask for a letter of recommendation, which is also known as a reference letter.

There are three major functions of the reference.

  • Allows the employer to check that you worked where you said you worked – and that you have the experience they hope you have
  • It will allow a future employer to verify that you are a good employee. They want to know if you will form a cohesive part of their team and bring the right personal qualities to the role.
  • They will want to know that the skills and understanding you say you can bring to the position are valid. Can you do what you said you could do?

When selecting your references, those most able to answer these points should make it to your list. The more directly connected to the recommendations you are, the more transparent you will appear to a potential future employer!

Different types of reference letter

Your references may be asked to write you a reference letter or a recommendation letter. There are some standard conventions for how these letters should read. The recipient of the message will expect to see information about your character – are you diligent? Are you resilient? How honest are you? How wise are you in new situations? The recommendation letter will touch on details about your personality, your work ethic, how much you involve yourself in the wider community and the strength of your academic and work-based achievements.

Three different reference letters can be requested. These include the following: –

  • Academic recommendations
  • Employment recommendations
  • Character recommendations (or references)

Here we explore each of these letters and what information will be provided. By knowing what is expected from the different referees, you can select the right ones for your application.

1) Academic Reference Letters

You would seek academic recommendations when you are a student looking to apply for the next stage of study. During the admissions process, the college may want to speak to other institutions you have attended, whether it is your previous school, college, or university. The place you are applying for will expect to see at least one academic referee on your application – to miss this out will look bad to the admissions office and could halt your application right there.

The academic reference letter helps the admission committee decide your suitability for the course for which you have applied. They will not only want to know about your academic achievements but also something about your wider achievements and your character. There may also be space for the referee to offer personal details about your history in their institution.

Not only will you need these for admittance to the course, but you may also need to provide recommendation letters when applying for scholarships or fellowships.

Who writes these academic references? You can reach out to a number of connections for an academic reference, including:

  • former teachers
  • principals
  • coaches
  • any other education professionals who worked closely with you

The person you select should have direct experience working with you, as the more specific detail they can include the more authentic the recommendation will appear to the recipient. You could consist of previous employees or mentors as people who could provide this recommendation; however, remember you are looking to appear credible and transparent to the recipient.

2) Employment reference letters

Every time you apply for a new job, you will be asked to provide details of people you have worked with before. Career references are a standard tool for helping recruiters select the best person for a job. There are lots of ways that these reference letters are sought. Some will need to be supplied as letters when you apply. More likely, you will be asked to include the name of at least two people on the application form. The employer might then seek the references for a shortlist before interviewing or call for your references after they have interviewed you.

As you could be asked for recommendation letters upfront from employers, you are best to have three recommendation letters available while you are applying. The more recent and relevant these recommendations, the better your chances will be.

The person writing this reference letter will likely include details such as:

  • details about your employment history
  • your job performance
  • your approach to work
  • any accomplishments that they feel deserve highlighting

You will want a reference letter from your most recent or current employer – and this should be the person who directly supervised you. It is also acceptable to ask a co-worker to provide this recommendation, though you need to think about what this might look like to your next employer. It might seem like you could not rely on a positive and glowing recommendation from a supervisor, so had to resort to a friend.

If you don’t have formal work experience (because you are new to the jobs’ market, for example) you can ask for a recommendation letter from a community or volunteer organisation. When you are starting in work, it is often a good idea to volunteer while you are going to school or college, as this proves a lot about your character and your approach to life. You can also ask someone from your school to offer an employment reference too if this is your first experience in the world of work.

3) Character references

If you are looking to rent a property, are involved in legal cases, are applying to adopt a child or something similar, you may be asked to provide the names of people who will attest to your character.

The sort of situations that demand this is usually where your approach to life is vital to the safety and happiness of others. The most appropriate person to ask for a character reference will depend entirely on the situation. It might be right to request a reference from an employer if your trust and reliability are essential.

If you need evidence that you always pay your rent, then a previous landlord is a great pick. Everything about a character reference depends on the varied contexts in which they are requested.

4) Testimonials

When you work in a freelance capacity or move from client to client, a testimonial is an essential tool for reassuring people that they should employ you. Sometimes these testimonials are posted on independent sites such as Trust Pilot, or they can be published on your social media profile or a website.

These testimonials are best collected organically. What this means is that those who have worked with you are so pleased with the service or product you produced that they will want to pass on your name to others. However, it also acceptable to ask a past customer or client to leave a testimonial for you if you feel confident that this testimonial will serve you well for gaining future business.

The use of testimonials as a way of acting as a reference works best if the comments made are concise and to the point but hold specific details of the service you offered.

Testimonials may also sometimes be referred to as professional references and come from people who are known for being a good judge of personnel in your sector.

Who can I use as a reference?

Now you know why you need a reference, and for what contexts, you should think carefully about who to select as your referee!

If you are applying for a job, it is typical for the organisation to ask for two or three references. You want to be confident that the person giving the reference will offer positive comments about your ability. However, you also have to balance this against the implications of missing key people, such as your previous employer, from your list. You should avoid seeking references from close family and friends. The likelihood that any recommendation will be taken seriously from a relative is slim.

Who should you ask for a reference?

The top five people to approach for a reference are:

  • Employer – Your previous employee will offer the best insight into your work ethic and how well you dealt with your responsibilities
  • Supervisor – Sometimes it is better, especially in a larger organisation, to select a supervisor instead. The more directly and specifically they can write about you as an employee, the more their word will be trusted
  • People who you have had a professional experience with such as colleagues, business contacts, customers, clients, and buyers – Asking a colleague is a good idea if you want to emphasise how well you work in a team. If the role you are about to take on demands outstanding soft skills, then a colleague is an excellent option.
  • Teacher or educator – A reference from a former teacher can also be a strong recommendation, especially if you are not long out of education. Equally, if you have worked closely with an academic advisor, they may know you on a more personal level.
  • Professional mentor or coach – You may work with a professional coach during your career. Not only do you signal that you sought to progress your career independently, but the coach will be expert in knowing what employers are looking for in their employees.

Select those referees that will respond and do so promptly. You do not want a prospective employee having to ask a referee repeatedly for the feedback. Any delay from your referee may be perceived as reluctance.

How do you ask for a reference?

You should always ask before putting someone on your referees’ list. You will want to warn them that they may be asked for a recommendation, but also you need their permission to pass on their contact details. When you ask for a reference, you could give them the job description to help them shape their responses or structure their letter. If you get the job, remember to send a thank-you note to the people who gave you a reference!

You should not wait until the last minute to organise your reference letters. You need to give the writers time to shape the best response and give the best impression. If you are looking for an academic recommendation, give the person two months before they need to provide them. An educational professional is likely providing references for many other people too.

For employer reference letters, you might want to keep a folder of recommendations from throughout your career. Equally, you could store collected character references too. If you have these past testimonials to hand, you could just pass them over when requested.

What to do if your references don’t respond

If you have let your referee know that you have put their name down, there should not be a problem. Hopefully, the people you select will know to respond quickly and will be happy to do so.

However, if you have a referee who you always use, the contact details may have become dated. If this is the case, it is a good idea to call the company where your reference worked. You can then request new contact details. It is unlikely they will give you the home phone number of your referee, but they might provide you with information about where they moved to work. Alternatively, you can always search social media in the hope that there is a way to message them there. LinkedIn is the perfect place to find someone who might have worked with you professionally – and the message received through this platform will appear less intrusive.

Ultimately, prevention is better than cure here. You need to maintain your references list actively. You should ask permission and then coach the referees on what is required from them. If you are worried that they may get too busy, you can ask them to provide a reference letter upfront.

Can I see my reference from my employer?

You are certainly within your rights to ask to see the reference from your employer. However, they are not obliged to show it to you.

Once you start a job, you can ask your HR department to provide you with copies of the references they received on your behalf. The recipient of the reference is permitted to disclose this reference, whether it was given in confidence or not. People who write recommendations should write with the understanding that what they communicate could be shared with the person they are writing about.

Consequently, it is thought best practice to show the reference to the individual before you send it.

Can an employer give a bad reference or refuse to give one?

You might have heard that it illegal for an employer to give a bad reference and must provide a reference if asked. This is not, in fact, the case.

An employer can make unfavourable comments about you if they have a legitimate right to believe what they are saying is accurate. Usually, these negative comments would be accompanied by evidence that shows they have reasonable grounds for offering this opinion. ACAS advice merely states that a reference must be “a fair reflection and accurate.” Equally, ACAS note that an employer has no legal obligation to give a reference at all.

What is evident in the law is that the reference must be factual. ACAS ask that employers steer away from conjecture and offer fair comment on performance supported by examples.

Most employers in some countries will air on the side of caution when offering references. As there is a risk of litigation, the employer may provide a recommendation that is neither negative nor positive but is so bland in its content that it demonstrates that they would not employ this person.

If they can neither factually be positive nor offer a bland reference, legally most companies will feel it is best to refuse the reference request. Alternatively, an employer will do no more than confirm the fates of employment. This shows courtesy to the other organisation while making it clear they do not feel in a position to offer a reference.

Writing a reference list for your CV.

You should begin by asking the following questions:

  1. How many references do I need to include?
  2. How do they want to receive my references?
  3. What information do I need to complete the references section of my CV?

The number of references requested will depend on your career level. Usually, the company will ask for two, including one from a previous employer. A lot of professional-level careers will ask for three references, especially if you are applying for a senior role. You should receive instructions on how many to write and how the future employer hopes to receive these details. It is possible that a recruiter does not call all the referees on the list but wants the option to do so if necessary.

If you feel that it’s necessary to include your references on your CV, you should do the following:

  1. Write your list in chronological order, with your most recent employer first and going back in reverse order. Try to cover the past five years of employment if possible.
  2. You should include the referee’s name, position, company, address, phone number, email and a brief description of your relationship with the referee.

Your references on your CV should look something like this:

Dr John Smith

Head of Engineering

XYZ Company or Organisation

123 Address Road

City or town and postal code

01234 456789

[email protected]

Dr John Smith was my direct manager in my role from 2017 to present.


Professor Jane Doe

Lecturer in Engineering

XYZ University

123 Address Road

City or town and postal code

01234 456789

[email protected]

Professor Doe was my lecturer and academic mentor during my postgraduate master’s degree.

There are plenty of reference list templates online that you can look at.


Even if you submit the best cover letter and interview brilliantly, you can lose your dream role because you didn’t do your best work when organising your references.

Too often the referees are an afterthought for job seekers but for employers they offer the most trusted information for whether to give the job or not. Consequently, asking permission to provide contact details, asking the right people, helping to prepare your referees, making sure the reference will be positive and remembering to send a thank you note are all essentials.


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Huhman, H. 2020. 5 References That Should Be On Your List To Land The Job. [online] Glassdoor Blog. Available at: [Accessed 18 June 2020].

Landau Law. 2020Can Your Employer Give You A Bad Reference? – Landau Law. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 June 2020].

Resume-Now. 2020. What Happens If Employer Can’T Contact Your References After An Interview. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 June 2020].

Totaljobs. 2020. References | Totaljobs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 June 2020].

The Balance Careers. 2019. Academic Reference Letter and Request Examples. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 June 2020].

ACAS. 2020. Providing a job reference. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 June 2020].

Indeed. 2020. How to Write a Resume Reference List (With Examples) [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 June 2020].

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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