Professional references are people who can provide personalized and experience-driven information about someone’s job performance and suitability for employment. Most of the time, these people are former bosses or co-workers who have first-hand experience with how a certain person performs on the job. Employers often ask for a list of professional references along with other application materials — resumes, cover letters, and such — so as to provide a more rounded snapshot of the applicant’s abilities and skills.
Who Qualifies as a Professional Reference
The main requirement for any professional reference is that he or she has some experience of the requesting person’s job performance. The best candidates are usually supervisors, who have direct knowledge of how the person works with others, handles pressure, and responds to criticism.
Co-workers and others who hold jobs in similar industries may also qualify. Depending on the sort of job at issue, a college or university professor — particularly one who has acted as a research director — could also be a good choice. In most cases, the best references are those who can convincingly speak about specific aspects of job performance.
Difference Between Professional and Personal References
It is tempting for many applicants to choose references who know them well in a personal capacity — family friends, community acquaintances, or those who hold influential roles in society, for instance. Unless these people can speak to an applicant’s work-related attributes, however, they are more properly known as “personal references.”
Personal references are important, and many jobs and academic programs request the names of people in this category. They should always be kept distinct from people who can speak about professional skills, however. Conflating the two can lead to confusion and possibly disqualification.
Strategies for Asking for References
It can sometimes be intimidating to ask colleagues and work acquaintances to serve as references, but getting permission is an important part of the process. Not all employers contact references that applicants list, but many do — which can lead to a lot of awkwardness if the reference is not expecting a call.
Many job search experts recommend keeping an active list of professional references who have consented to having their names put forward. This way, when jobs come up, applicants can simply chose the most relevant people without having to initiate contact directly. It is often a good idea to inform references that they might be contacted by a particular employer, but this is not usually required.
How to Submit References to Potential Employers
Often times, job postings or advertisements are very specific when it comes how many references should be provided. Some ask for names and contact information in a resume; others require actual letters written in support of a candidate’s application. It is usually best to follow the employer’s guidelines precisely. If no mention is made of referrals, it is perfectly acceptable to include the line “references available upon request” at the end of a cover letter or resume, or to bring a list of names along to an interview.
Concerns for New Job Seekers
People who have never had a job before often struggle with professional references because they don't have a defined work history. Teachers or professors, landlords, or others who have known the applicant for an extended period of time may be good candidates in these circumstances, even though they are not strictly “professional.” New job seekers should note that they have no job history when they provide references so that employers are not suspicious about the lack of former employers.