Job References: Who To Ask for One and How To Write One

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 14 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Many job applications require professional references, which are testimonials of a candidate's character, experience and abilities. If you're currently searching for a job, it's helpful to know how to ask for references so you can receive high-quality ones. For those more established in their careers, it's important to understand how to write a good recommendation for professionals in your network. In this article, we discuss why job references matter, who candidates can ask for one and what professionals should include in their endorsements for others.

Related: How To Ask Someone To Be Your Referee: Email Examples

Why are job references important?

Many employers look for references as a way to learn about the candidate's background. These documents matter because they can:

  • Show evidence of a candidate's qualifications: A reference can provide confirmation of the skills and experiences outlined on your CV or other parts of your job application.

  • Reveal more details than your CV: A CV gives an overview of your qualifications, but a written testimony can often expand upon the summary provided in your CV.

  • Provide another perspective: Some recruiters seek second opinions before making a final decision about whom to hire for an open position. References offer a great way for recruiters to get an additional, unique perspective on their various candidates.

Who can I use as a job reference?

The person you choose as a reference should be able to tell others about your professional and personal qualities. Ideally, this person can describe your skills, personality traits and work ethic. Whether or not you have a close relationship with them, your reference should be able to identify and talk about your unique qualifications to recruiters. You can use a variety of people in your network for a recommendation, such as:

  • Professional references: These are from people you've worked with or helped as part of your job, internship or volunteer position. Professional references could be a current or former supervisor, coworker, client or vendor.

  • Academic references: These are from professionals who work in a school or university and know you as a student. Academic references include teachers, school counsellors, professors, faculty advisors and principals.

  • Personal references: These are from people with whom you have a casual relationship, such as friends, family members or leaders of religious organisations. Only use a personal reference either if a job application requests one or you have limited professional experience.

What do you say in a job reference?

Writing a professional endorsement for a previous employee, student or colleague can be a great way to help them advance in their career. If you're developing a letter for someone else, here is what you can include in it:

Introduction to the letter's contents

Start the letter with a formal introduction to the recipent, like Dear Mr. Smith or To Whom It May Concern. In the next paragraph, provide a brief introduction that explains the relationship between you and the candidate, such as that you're their past supervisor or professor. State why you're writing the letter and give a brief summation of the candidate's main qualifications.

Description of the candidate's traits and skills

Use the body paragraphs of your letter to go into greater detail about the candidate. Discuss their characteristics, abilities and experiences most relevant to the specific employment or another opportunity, such as a college application. Try to discuss skills and traits you've witnessed directly so that you can describe them with greater authenticity.

Examples of their qualifications

Offer examples that illustrate one or two of the skills or traits you're highlighting about the candidate. Use examples that you witnessed directly, if possible. Providing more details helps recruiters to understand and visualise a candidate's most desirable qualifications.

Read more: How To Write a Reference Letter (With Example)

How do you write a good job reference?

With the proper planning and effort, you can create a great reference for someone. Here are four steps to writing one:

1. Check your organisation's policies

If you know the candidate through an organisation, such as a company or an agency, be sure to check the organisation's internal policies on references before agreeing to write one. Some organisations have certain rules about providing endorsements for former or current employees. For example, your organisation may allow you to discuss a candidate's traits, but have rules about what kinds of information you can reveal about the employee's duties.

2. Gather information about the candidate and opportunity

Learn more about both the candidate and why they want a recommendation. If you know the candidate well, you may only need them to provide you with a bit more information, such as the job posting and their CV. However well you know the candidate, having all the information in front of you can help remind you of important facts as you compose the letter.

3. Make an outline

Outline the letter and determine how you want to organise its body paragraphs. For example, some professionals may choose to organise the letter chronologically, describing a candidate's progression over several months or years. Others might opt to centre each paragraph on a particular trait or skill of the candidate's.

4. Be positive and professional

Focus your letter on the candidate's positive qualities in relation to the job or other opportunity. Even if you know the candidate personally, describe their qualifications in a professional tone. This includes using examples that happened in a professional capacity, such as in the workplace or classroom.

Related: How To Write a Business Letter (With Tips and an Example)

Tips for getting references

References can make a big impact on your chances of getting hired. To get the best possible ones, follow these tips:

Develop and maintain relationships

Work to develop a relationship with your superiors wherever you go, whether it's your teacher, coach or manager. Then, once you leave, find ways to keep that relationship fresh over the years. An occasional greeting can help others remember you and make them more comfortable in providing a letter about you.

Choose relevant people

Choose references that are most relevant to the job you're applying for. This way, those who write your recommendation can emphasise your most important areas of expertise. For example, if you're applying for a job in sales, your manager at a previous customer service job may be an ideal choice.

Provide relevant information

After you ask someone for a reference, it's helpful to provide them with some information. Let them know what job or opportunity you're applying for, which skills or attributes you're requesting they discuss and who to address the letter to. If someone is willing to provide a recommendation, this means they want to help you with your career, and the more details you can provide, the better.

Give people enough time

Putting together a reference can take some time. When asking for one, respect their prior commitments and give them plenty of time to provide it. You should ask for a letter at least a few weeks before you need it and provide them with the date you need it. If you haven't heard back a few days before that date, you can reach out again and politely inquire about their progress.

Related: Important Soft Skills Employers in Hong Kong Look For

References for different stages in your life

You may need recommendations in various situations. Below is some information on how you can get references at different stages of your life:

High school student

The first time you might need a reference is when you're applying for a job during high school. If this is your first job, it can be tougher to find people to discuss your professional background, but most employers recognise you may not have work experience yet.

Start by asking any teachers you have formed a relationship with. If you can use a teacher who teaches a subject similar to the job you are applying for, that's even better. Another type of person you can ask is leaders for groups you are in. For example, if you're a Scout, you could ask your troop leader. If you're active in a sport, you can ask your coach. Getting a reference during high school is all about having someone vouch for your work ethic and capabilities.

Entry-level employee

Entry-level jobs are the type of jobs you get immediately after high school or college. Depending on your history, there are several places you can get references when applying for an entry-level job.

The best type of recommendation would be from a previous employer, preferably one in a similar industry, even if that job was an internship. If that isn't an option, you can then turn to teachers and professors. After that, try coaches, troop leaders or instructors. Find someone who can attest to your work ethic, even if it isn't in a professional setting.

Experienced professional

Once you have a few years of work experience, it becomes easier to get high-quality references. At this point in your career, focus on testimonies that come from previous employers.

Most employers can give you a reference letter as long as you let them know ahead of time. When a new employer is looking for someone to hire, they like to see that a candidate has had professional success elsewhere. Think about where you have done your best work over the years and who you formed the best relationships with when picking out who to use as a reference.

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