How to Format a List of Professional References

Image shows a person writing on paper. Text reads: Steps to take before submitting references: Ask permission from each of your references; Provide references with a heads up that someone might be calling to ask about you; Remind references about your skills and accomplishments; Make sure list of references is up to date, accurate, and error-free

Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019

Do you have a list of references ready to provide to prospective employers? If not, line up references who can speak to your credentials and qualifications for a job, so you’re prepared when you’re asked for them.

It's always a good idea to have a list of references ready to provide to hiring managers when you're job searching. It's also important to contact your references for permission to use them and to advise them that they may be contacted. This way, you won't have to round up a list of reference givers at the last minute.

When and Why Employers Want References

During the job application process, you will most likely be asked for references who can attest to your qualifications. The company may want to verify your credentials and speak to your reference givers to gauge your ability to do the job well.

Typically, this request occurs either when you submit your job application or later in the application process, when the hiring manager is close to making their decision.

The employer will typically specify how many references to include on your list, as well as what contact information you need to provide for each reference.

You will need to format your list of professional references either to include with your application materials, give to the interviewer, or else to email to the hiring manager later on in the hiring process. The employer will typically advise you on how and when to provide references.

As with all communication with a potential employer, from cover letters to thank-you notes, your list of references should be formatted professionally, easy to read and understand, and free of any typos or errors.

What to Include on a Reference List

When you provide a list of professional references to an employer, you should include:

  • Your name at the top of the page.
  • List your references, including their name, job title, company, and contact information, with a space in between each reference.
  • Include at least three professional references who can attest to your ability to perform the job you are applying for.
  • If it's not clear from your resume, you may also wish to include information about your relationship with the reference.

For instance, you could write, "Reference Name was my supervisor while I was an accountant at Smith Enterprises," or "Reference Name is my current employer."

Example of a Professional Reference List Format

Here's how to format a list of professional references for employment or business purposes.

Reference List Example

References for Janet Dolan

John Killeny
Human Resources Director
Allston Industries
52 Milton Street
Allston, MA 12435
john.killeny@allstonindustries.com
(555) 123-4567
John Killeny is the human resources director for my previous employer.

Janet Smithley
Manager
McGregor Company
1001 Route 20, Suite 210
Arlington, CA 55112
jsmithley@mcgregor.com
(555) 123-4567
Janet Smithley was my supervisor at McGregor Company.

Samantha Greening
Marketing Director
Samson Enterprises
108 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 11111
sgreening@samson.com
(555) 123-4567
Samantha Greening was my colleague at Samson Enterprises.

Before You Submit Your References

Listing your references on the page isn't your last step in this process. If you haven't already, ask permission from each of your references. It's important only to submit the names of people who have agreed to serve as a reference.

Even if all of your references are happy to be on your list, it's a good idea to provide a heads-up that someone may be reaching out to them to ask about you. This is a great opportunity to share some information about the job you're applying for, provide some key points from your resume that you'd like them to emphasize, and generally remind them about your skills and accomplishments, especially if it's been a while since you worked together.

Once you've done all that, review the list of references one last time to make sure there are no typos and that all contact information is correct and up to date. Here are some helpful proofreading tips for job seekers.

Tips for Getting and Submitting References

Who to Use as a Reference. Choosing who to ask for a reference is an important step in your application process. You will want to tailor your reference list, depending on the job for which you're applying. When possible, utilize references with connections to the company or industry to which you are applying.

It’s also helpful to use references who can attest to your qualifications for the particular job you’re applying to. With this in mind, it’s great if you can list people who have worked with you in a similar context.

How to Email a Reference List. When you’re emailing a reference list to an employer, name the file so that it’s easy to identify and easy for the hiring manager to keep track of. You may want to send it as a PDF file, so it retains the original formatting. Here's how:

  • For Word Documents: click “File, Save As, PDF (.pdf)” to save your documents as PDF files.
  • For Google Docs files: click “File, Download, PDF (.pdf)” document. 
  • Save the files with your name, so they don't get mixed up with other applicants' materials, e.g., janeapplicant.pdf.

Give the Reference Giver an Opportunity to Decline. When you ask someone to give you a reference, it’s always a good idea to give them an opportunity to decline. While most people are happy to help colleagues out with references and recommendations, there may be personal circumstances or professional policies preventing them from doing so at a particular time.

Consider When to Use a Character or Personal Reference. Remember that there are also circumstances in which you might want to submit a character or personal reference (as opposed to a professional reference) who might be better able to speak to your abilities. This is especially true when you have limited work experience or are branching into a new field.

Need help? See more information on who to ask for a reference and how to make the request.

Article Sources

  1. CareerOneStop. "References," Accessed Nov. 20, 2019.

  2. SHRM. "Conducting Background Investigations and Reference Checks," Accessed Nov. 20, 2019.

  3. SHRM. "Personal Reference Checks Valuable but Require Extra Care," Accessed Nov. 20, 2019.