How To Plan Your Job References Strategically

By Jeff Gillis

Many jobs these days require applicants to submit job references along with applications, and depending on who you use, can either hurt or help you.  Be prepared to have your past employers contacted!

Many times future employers want to know little beyond your general performance and salary.

Some may want more information like your ability to work in a team or your response to deadlines and pressure and your attendance record.

Hopefully you were professional enough at your last job that your future employer won’t hear about you spiking the eggnog at the company Christmas party and faxing photos of your bum to the Topeka branch of the business.

NOTE: This article is about your professional references. Be sure to read our “sister article” character reference letter 101.

Which Job References Should You Use?

Before you freak out and start trying to find friends who will pretend to be old coworkers for you, let’s look at potential questions future employers might ask your references

The best way to make sure you have stellar references is to know who is going to give you reviews that will help you and then put those individuals down as your references.

10 Questions A Potential Employer May Ask Your Job Reference

Here are ten questions employers typically ask.   For the purposes of this article, we’ll pretend your name is Joe Bob.  (Hey, just go with it…)

  • How long was Joe Bob employed with your company?
  • Can you describe Joe Bob’s duties and responsibilities while at your company?
  • Did Joe Bob report directly to you?  If he did, how was his communication with you?
  • Can you tell me why Joe Bob left your company?
  • Was Joe Bob responsible for others as well as himself?  Was he in a management or oversight position?
  • Is Joe Bob a good team leader or team worker?
  • How is Joe Bob’s organizational skills?  Can he prioritize and schedule?
  • We are considering hiring Joe Bob to fill this position.  Can you tell me if you feel he is qualified for this type of work or these responsibilities?
  • How was Joe Bob’s attendance?  Was he on time?  Were his days productive?
  • Would you ever consider re-hiring Joe Bob should you have the chance?

Okay, so a few of those questions were actually multiple questions, but you get the idea.  So now your task is to go through these questions and see how your past employers might answer them and how their answers might affect your ability to get a job.

If you worked for company X and had a fabulous time there with your buddies but didn’t have the best rapport with your boss, you might consider skipping that reference.

What If My Work History Is Spotty Or Non-Existent??

If your work history is a little shaky, or you don’t have tons to choose from, there are other options for references.  You can include places you have volunteered at, Church organizations you have assisted with, and any other situation where you interacted with individuals at a professional level.

If you’re just starting out in the job market and you haven’t had any “bosses,” you can still use professors, instructors, teachers or counselors.  Even past baby-sitting jobs can be used as references.

Prepare Your Job References Properly

After you decide who of your references would be best suited to champion you for the job you’re dying to get, you need to first ask them if they would mind being a reference. Things can get ugly fast if one of your references gets caught off guard with a call from a potential employer out of the blue!

Next you need to prepare them properly. Be sure they each have a copy of your resume and cover letter. These will help to remind them of your specific qualifications, skills, and accomplishments.

JEFF'S TIP: If a former company gives you the line: "We don't give references", simply bypass HR and head to the individuals you specifically worked with and they will usually be fine with becoming a reference.

Job Reference List Template

If you want a pretty good template to model for your reference list on, check out:

As you can see their templates go a bit beyond the traditional “listing” of references and provide a little more context to the references which can highlight qualities that you possess that are in alignment with what the company is looking for. (We aren’t associated with these guys and are not recommending their services, we just like their template as something you can model…)

Don’t Bother With Reference Letters

Including reference letters with your cover letter and resume is pretty much a waste of time. The fact is potential employers want to TALK to your references. They want to hear in their voice how they feel about you. Employers don’t put much stalk into reference letters because let’s be honest, you pretty much know they are going to be filled with praise and little else.

JEFF'S TIP: Having said that, many companies will specifically ask you for a recommendation letter. In fact, some might even ask you for a couple different letters. Don't worry. We cover everything you need to know in our blog post Letter of Recommendation 101 and include a sample you can use to make sure your letters are perfect!

Employers want to do some digging and really find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. They can find those things out much better by actually talking to your references.

As long as you choose and prepare your references properly, this fact shouldn’t worry you.


The bottom line is, when putting together your list of job references, make sure that you have people that will give fair, unbiased, and hopefully favorable reviews of your work for them.  And for goodness sake, don’ t use only friends or family members.  The last thing a future employer wants to do is spend an hour on the phone with your mother listening to her talk about your diaper rash when you were five.

That’s what Christmas parties are for!

About The Author

Jeff Gillis

Co-founder and CTO of Jeff is a featured contributor delivering advice on job search, job interviews and career advancement, having published more than 50 pieces of unique content on the site, with his work being featured in top publications such as INC, ZDnet, MSN and more. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.