What is a Professional Reference?

What is a professional reference and how do job seekers use professional references to successfully support their job application?

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A professional reference is typically someone who either managed or supervised you and who has adequate knowledge of your skills, competencies, strengths and ability as they relate to job performance.

Professional references also provide confirmation of the candidate's job responsibilities and duties, length of employment and other work-related details.

Who are the best people to use as a professional reference?

When selecting professional references it is important that the individual has sufficient knowledge of your skills and achievements and is able to provide an insightful and accurate reference to prospective employers.

Previous employers will have the most insight into your work performance. Your immediate manager, supervisor or team leader should have the best understanding of the tasks and responsibilities of your position and how successfully these were carried out.

When selecting your professional references, other important considerations are :

  • you should enjoy a positive working relationship with them
  • they are willing to be contacted when needed
  • they are willing to take the time to provide a  detailed reference
  • you have a reasonable idea of what they will say about your work

Other criteria to consider when selecting your professional references

Try to choose a reference you have worked with in a similar role to the one you are applying for. This will ensure that the reference highlights those skills and strengths that relate directly to the job opportunity. They will also be able to provide specific examples of relevant work you have performed and match your reference to the job opportunity. 

You should have worked with them recently. Current information is always more valuable. Additionally the reference will be able to provide more detail if they can clearly remember your performance than those you worked for long ago. 

Who else other than a previous employer can act as a professional reference?

Previous employers are usually the most suitable professional references. However people such as clients, vendors or business contacts who have worked with you and know you on a professional basis can also provide a valid reference. 

Can a colleague be a professional reference?

Colleagues may also be contacted for a professional reference. However the following suitability criteria apply:

  •  the co-worker should be very familiar with and able to attest to your work performance, this means they should be in the same department or work closely with you in the company
  • it is preferable if the colleague is at a similar level or more senior in the company
  • colleagues who are close friends should be avoided, this can harm the integrity of the reference and will not sit well with the prospective employer

It is almost always preferable to use a manager or supervisor as your professional reference. Colleagues may be used if there is a problem with obtaining a reference from either of these. 

What about my current manager/supervisor?

You may be asked to provide the details of your current manager or supervisor and asked if they can be contacted for a reference. This is likely to be awkward for you if your current employer is unaware of your job search. In this instance it is quite acceptable that you ask that they not be contacted for confidentiality reasons until a formal job offer is made. 

How can I be sure that I will get a positive reference?

How do you know that your professional references will be positive and support your job application?

One way to determine this is to request a written reference before listing their names as potential references. Pre-screening what they say about you will give you a good idea of their opinion of you and the sort of reference they will give a potential employer when contacted.

How do I request a professional reference?

It is essential to ask permission from the people who you want to list as professional references. They need to be comfortable to act as a reference and be prepared for the call or email.

How to request a reference by email.

Politely thank the person in advance for taking the time to talk to a prospective employer. Keep them updated on your job status and the progress of the hiring process so that they know when they will be contacted. This way they will be prepared to provide a detailed reference about your relevant work abilities.

Graphic representation of 4 things your should know about job references

How to write a thank you for the reference email or letter

Sending a polite thank you for the reference note is a great way to maintain your professional connections.

What is a professional reference - who cannot be a professional reference?

  •     family members
  •     friends
  •     anyone who has insufficient direct experience or knowledge of your work performance

What is a professional reference for entry level job candidates?

Job candidates with little or no work experience can use personal or character references instead of employment references. These type of references attest to the candidate's competencies and character traits. 

Find out everything you need to know about requesting and obtaining personal and character references.


Character Job Reference Letter


Sample Character Reference Letters

Can I use academic references?

 Students and recent  graduates can use academic references to support their job applications. These include those from those from professors, sports coaches and college personnel. The references you select should have observed you in situations where you demonstrated relevant skills, knowledge and competencies for employment.

Do potential employers actually use professional references?

The majority of employers will contact at least one professional reference before making a hiring decision. These references can play a powerful role in determining your suitability for the job.  Pay close attention to how you optimize the use of professional references in your job search.

Typical reference check questions

How to list references on your job application

Presenting your list of professional references in the correct format is important. Find out how to correctly list your references.

Professional Reference List Example

How to list references on your resume

It is better to provide a separate reference list with your resume.

Professional Reference Page for Resume

Professional job reference letter samples


Sample Employment Reference Letter


Letter of Recommendation


Sample Reference Letters

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