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Overview: Why you need references and how to obtain them

Overview: Why you need references and how to obtain them

Note: The following sections only address references and recommendations for professional/employment purposes. When seeking references for a graduate school or professional school application, please see the Further Education section.


Employers ask many questions during interviews to get to know candidates, but another way of obtaining or confirming information about a candidate is through references. If an interview is successful, the employer may choose to contact referees to confirm past experience and gauge future performance.

Providing references refers to the practice of giving an employer a list of referees. Referees are individuals who can provide information about you in one or more of the following areas:

  • Professional experience/skills
  • Academic experience
  • Personal character

References are a crucial part of obtaining a job, so managing them effectively is very important.

Employers usually ask for references at the time of the interview or shortly afterwards so make sure to bring a list of your referees to the interview and only provide them if the employer asks for them. Do not include them in your résumé as it takes up valuable space and does not respect the referees’ confidential information.

References can take several forms. Options include:

  1. A form to fill out where you can provide your referees’ information
  2. A reference list using the same header, formatting and font as your résumé (and cover letter if you provided one) to create consistent branding across your documents.

For each reference, provide the following information:
Referee name
Current job title, company name
Relationship to you (e.g., former manager at XYZ Company)
Email address
Phone number

Generally, referees are your current or most recent supervisors at your job or volunteer positions. It is acceptable to use past co-workers as well, if they can provide you with a strong reference. If you are having difficulty finding a referee, you can ask a professor or a landlord with whom you have a good relationship. It is not good practice to use family members or close friends as referees.

Some employers will have strict parameters as to whom they will allow you to use as a reference. The employer will also let you know how many references they are expecting: they usually range from one to three. Make sure to follow their guidelines.

If you are uncomfortable sharing your work search with your current supervisor for any reason, it is acceptable to use another referee. You may need to share with the hiring manager why you are not using your current supervisor (e.g., “My supervisor is not aware that I am currently looking for another position”).

Note: It is important to only ask people that will be willing and able to provide you with a strong reference as the hiring decision may come down to one candidate’s reference vs another.

It is essential that you keep your referees in mind during the entire work search process, not just when receiving an interview request or job offer, as they can be requested at short notice. Being proactive and maintaining a good relationship with your referees is essential.

Do Don’t
Let your referees know, if appropriate, that you have started the work search process and ask if they would be a referee.

Here’s an example of how to ask for a reference:
“I am applying to X job and was wondering if you would be comfortable speaking about my involvements with Y as one of my professional references?”
Pressure any of your referees.
For example: “Hi, I need you to provide a reference for me.”
Once you have a job interview scheduled, confirm if your referee is still available and send them the following information:
  • the job description,
  • your résumé
  • reminder of your important contributions, and other aspects that you would like them to emphasize
Give out a referee’s contact information without reaching out to them first.
Ask your referee if there will be any periods of time they will be unavailable. Ask referees with whom you didn’t leave a good impression or have a good relationship.
Ask your referee for their most appropriate and up-to-date contact information.
Follow up with a thank you note if the referee has provided a reference, whether it resulted in a job offer or not.

Your referee might be happy to provide you with a reference but might be too busy to answer calls for references (say, for example, that you worked with a high-profile Member of Parliament or the CEO of a big tech company).

A great way to solve this problem is to ask your referee to write a reference letter or a recommendation for you on LinkedIn. A LinkedIn recommendation will live on your profile page and you can refer your potential employer to this page.

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development