Professional Reference Letters 101 (Sample Template Included)

By Mike Simpson

Part and parcel of membership in the not-so-elite squad of Traditional Human Employment – to make it fun let’s call them the The Job Seeking Squad – are professional references.

A reference is how your hopefully soon-to-be employer can assess your experience and ranking in the The Job Seeking Squad.

  • How long have you been Squad-approved?
  • When were you initiated?
  • Were you an elite member of this not-so-elite pool of the The Job Seeking Squad participants?

Your professional reference should answer these questions. A high ranking can easily outshine a shorter length of service.

It is nearly impossible, however, to recover from a low ranking. Best throw those references out of play before they mark you a truancy or redundancy.

The Job Seeking Squad does not appreciate truancy or redundancy, and neither will your soon-to-be employer.

What is a Professional Reference?

A professional reference is an invitation for your prospective employer to get in touch with a former employer or, in some cases, a physical letter of reference (or letter of recommendation).

Either way, this correspondence is meant to provide proof of your length of service, terms of enrollment, and ranking in the The Job Seeking Squad.

Where a character reference is given by someone who knows you personally and shows evidence of your strength of character and soft skills, a professional reference, by definition, involves someone who knows you professionally.

Though they may touch on your character and soft skills in their reference, hard skills and work ethic are more likely to come into play. This is often the final step of your employment journey – once your references are cleared the employer will make a decision on your candidacy.

Sometimes you will be the only applicant to be asked for professional references. In this case the offer is in the bag, as long as nothing worrying comes up when they contact your reference.

Other times, an employer may have several candidates of interest.

Though you aren’t given an actual score or grade by your reference, many employers will shape the often qualitative and subjective information provided by your reference into a ranking that sizes you up against other applicants.

Just as in providing a character reference, in many cases you can pick and choose your professional references.

Choose wisely as your The Job Seeking Squad score and rank for the position at hand depends entirely on the person providing the reference.

How To Choose Who To Ask For A Professional Reference

The person to draft your letter is the employer or employers who believe that dandelions spring from the ground with every step you take.

They should envision a halo around your head, just barely visible to their well-trained eye! You, they know, can turn water to wine…

Of course…most of us don’t have this type of person just sitting around waiting in the wings to write them a reference. If you do, you should perhaps consider a proposal of marriage in addition to your request for a letter of reference (no… not really).

For the rest of us, choose the person who most closely resembles this ideal. In many cases, it will be the employer you like best.

It is a well-known fact that people like people who like them. Don’t choose the stuffy employer who always seemed to be looking down his nose at you. Choose the guy who became a friend and mentor. Choose the guy you liked to see at work every day. They probably liked seeing you, too.

This is the person to write your professional reference.

What To Do When A Prospective Employer Asks For A Professional Reference (Step By Step)

Here are the steps that you should follow when asked to provide a professional reference:

  1. Choose your preferred reference giver (see above)
  2. Contact your preferred reference giver by phone, if possible, to ask if you can provide their information to a potential employer as a reference or ask for a written reference if one is required. If they agree, explain the role and your more relevant qualifications. Also confirm the best method of contacting them. If a written reference is requested, make sure they know where to send it.
  3. Send an email to your reference, reiterating what you discussed on the phone. Also provide a link to the job description for their review.
  4. Contact the employer that requested the reference in whatever way you have been communicating with them thus far to provide the name of your reference, their contact information and their relationship to you.

Mistakes To Avoid When Choosing And Providing Professional References

As with nearly all job interview-related topics, there are a mine-field of mistakes that you need to navigate to ensure that you end up walking away with the job offer you so desperately want:

1) Don’t Choose A Buddy Unless They Actually Worked With You

Though we all intend to perform feats of awesomeness at our places of employment and earn stunning The Job Seeker Squad rankings, sometimes this isn’t accomplished. In these situations, it is tempting to choose a friend as your professional reference.

If you are certain that every employer you have ever had will provide a poor reference, you may be able to squeeze by on a professional reference from a colleague.

Under no circumstances, however, should you provide the contact information of someone who has not worked with you.

This simply sends too many red flags to a potential employer.

2) Don’t Provide A Reference Without First Confirming The Availability Of Your Chosen Reference

There are two problems with this.

  • The first is that your chosen reference may simply not be available. If they are on a two-month sabbatical, hiking the Appalachian trail, or searching for arctic mermaids in Antarctica, it is going to hold up your offer of employment.
  • Second, it is unprofessional to provide the contact information to a reference without first getting permission. You don’t want the first thought running through a reference’s mind to be, why the heck is this person calling me? They will be unprepared and likely a little annoyed.

An annoyed, unprepared reference is not what we’re going for.

Tips For Cultivating A Professional Reference List

How do you generate cheerleaders who will convince potential employers that your The Job Seeker Squad track record makes you worthy of any position? You have to actually be worthy.

All the small things that make someone an exemplary employee will also serve to generate exemplary references.

  • Always be on time.
  • Be communicative.
  • Go above and beyond, both in your assigned responsibility and in those not assigned to you where your help will generate value.
  • Be a giver, not a taker. If you are a superstar, your references will say so.

Don’t worry if you haven’t excelled in every position. Decide today to start excelling now and you will have an amazing professional reference in no time.

What To Do If Someone Asks You To Be Their Professional Reference (Step By Step)

This portion of the lesson is not for the Job Seekers, but for those lucky enough to be approached by a job seeker to provide a professional reference.

If you want to ensure you’re giving your colleague the best chance at securing a job offer, follow these steps to give an award-winning professional reference:

  1. Find out exactly what position they are hoping to attain.
  2. Assess whether you can honestly and positively refer them for the position.
  3. If you do feel that this person would be a good fit, agree to act as a reference and provide a good contact number and email where their potential employer to reach you.
  4. Make a mental list of the reasons said person would excel in the new position. What attributes do they possess that make them an idea candidate? Ask them if there is anything they’d like to see highlighted.
  5. It is kind to let a candidate know once their potential employer has been in touch and you have provided their reference.
  6. If you have been requested to provide a written reference, include the dates the employee worked for you, a brief description of their responsibilities an overview of their relevant skills, and your contact information. Don’t forget to actually recommend the employee. Keep it short, positive, and specific.

Sample Reference Letter

Dear Mr. Barnum:

Jessica has been an exceptional asset to the Circus of Fire during her tenure here from January 2010 through January 2017.

Her responsibilities at the circus included caring for our exotic animals, performing with various fire-based apparatus, and entertaining circus-goers of all ages. She is also quite adept at tight-rope walking.

Her positive attitude and stage presence make her an ideal circus employee. Children and parents alike regularly come back to the show a second or even third time just to see her. She is that good.

I highly recommend her for your open position as an Advanced Circus Performer. She won’t let you down. Feel free to contact me at 234-567-8901 if you need any additional information.


Mr. Bailey

Putting It All Together

Cultivating professional references is a life-long process for any and every member of the Job Seeker Squad. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be hard. Find the job that is right for you and go above and beyond what is expected.

If you’re in the right job, this won’t be a burden. Stellar references will be a happy byproduct and your elite-status will be secured. The tough part is actually finding the right job, the right manager, the right set of circumstances that will allow you to excel.

Let us leave you with one last word of advice.

MIKE'S TIP: Your potential employer is asking you for a reference because they want to make sure you will excel in the position. Your reference is only half the answer. In order to excel you need to be with the right company and under the right manager. Nothing kills motivation and productivity faster than the wrong job. Conduct your own reference check. Ask if you can speak to current employees about the work culture and management style of your supervisor. A little work now can prevent an employment fiasco later.

Now go forth, with your reference letter wisdom, and slay the job market with your knowledge!

About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.