The Ins and Outs of Providing References

You should have your references prepared well in advance.

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Lindsay Olson
You've likely been asked for references in an interview or during the application process. Rather than scrambling to pull a few together, you should have these all prepared well in advance and keep the reference information in one place.

Step 1: Create a Separate Document

You shouldn't include references in your resume. You don't want to risk a recruiter or hiring manager reaching out to your references prematurely or without permission. Instead, guard your references' time and contact information as if it were your own. Fielding too many calls could make them think twice about offering their experiences working with you. To avoid this, keep your references noted on a separate document and send them along only when asked.

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Step 2: Ask Your Contacts

Always ask your contacts if it's okay to use them as references before giving their information to potential employers. It certainly would be awkward if you listed a reference who didn't feel comfortable recommending you. People don't like to be caught by surprise, and they need time to think back to the time they worked with you to give accurate information.

Your reference list might not just include past supervisors; look to teachers, co-workers or junior employees you've managed. Skip the personal references unless you are specifically asked for them. A professional reference can attest to both your character and your work dedication.

Step 3: Get Complete Contact Information

Some hiring managers prefer to call references, while others will simply ask a few questions via email. Make sure you give comprehensive contact information, including email and phone number. You should note the details of your relationship (boss, colleague, direct report) with a reference, and the company where you worked together, so the hiring manager or recruiter can decide which people are most relevant.

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Step 4: Customize

Each prospective employer may look for something different in references (personal, professional, co-worker, boss), so be sure to include contacts that fit their request.

Make a master list of 10 or more potential references from your file of colleagues, bosses, direct reports, clients, and personal acquaintances. When it's time to prepare your references, give your potential employer three to five of the most relevant.

As time passes, you'll want to update your list to contacts who have worked with you more recently. A boss you had 10 years ago may not remember you well enough to give a strong reference, let alone be able to speak on your performance. Recent references from your past two jobs is standard.

Also make sure the contact information you have is still accurate each time you send it out. For example, your former boss may no longer work with the same company. Be sure to find out before you give erroneous contact information to a potential employer.

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It's always nice to give a heads-up to the people on your list when you send the references, to let them know that they may be contacted and so that they can prepare to take the call.

Do Employers Really Check References?

Most of the time, yes. Sometimes it's enough that you are able to provide a list of contacts who would vouch for you. Some employers go on Google to see what they can discover about you. It's wise to search for yourself to see what pops up.

As a backup, you may want to include a character reference letter with your application. This is a letter written by a former boss that speaks to your abilities and skills. Not every hiring manager will ask for one, but it's always a good idea to keep a generically written character reference on file just in case. After leaving a job—on good terms—ask your boss to write you a letter that you can use with any job application.

Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.

Twitter: @USNewsCareers