How to Provide References With a Job Application

Woman working on laptop adding references to a job application.
••• Mladen_Kostic / iStock

In the past, employers typically waited to ask job applicants for references until they were serious contenders for a job. Occasionally, however, companies will request that applicants provide a list of references when they initially apply for a job. This tends to happen more in conservative industry sectors like the legal profession, jobs in childhood education, in the building trades, and on federal job postings.

How Companies May Ask for a Reference

For example, the job posting may read:

Required Applicant Documents

  • Cover Letter
  • Resume
  • List of Three References

Alternatively, the announcement may state, "To be considered for this position, please fill out an online profile and attach the following documents: cover letter, resume, and a list of three references."

When providing the company with references, don't list your references on your resume. Instead, include a separate, attached page with a list of three references (or whatever number the company asks for) and their contact information.

Who to Use as a Reference

Your list of references should include professional connections who can attest to your qualifications for the job. Your references don't have to be people who work at your current job; in fact, you shouldn't use references from your current manager or co-workers if the company isn't aware you are job searching. The last thing you want is for your boss to learn from one of their competitors that you have approached them regarding a new job.

Instead, you could use colleagues from previous jobs, professors, clients or vendors, people you have worked with if you have volunteered or belonged to a church or sports group, or a former employer (if you’re sure that they would provide you with a positive reference). You might also use LinkedIn connections whom you feel you have a good rapport with.

If you are short on references because of a limited work history, use a personal reference who can attest to your character and abilities (such a teacher, pastor, or club sponsor).

Permission and Confidentiality

It's always a good idea to ask for permission to use someone as a reference in advance - before you give out their name. This will allow you to determine, by their response, whether they feel like they could provide a positive reference. If they (or you) have any doubt as to the strength of the reference they might provide, look for someone else who would be more willing to vouch for you.

Verify that you have the correct contact information and ask the reference how they want to be contacted - phone, email, etc. Also, ask if there are specific times during the day when they would be willing to be contacted, should they allow you to provide their phone number. If possible, give them a list of the jobs you have applied for so that they are aware ahead of time of which employers might be contacting them. Finally, ask if you can send them a current resume or any other information they might need in order to be prepared to provide a glowing description of your work and of your character.

In addition, if you are currently employed, ask your reference giver if they can keep your request confidential. As mentioned above, you don't want your employer to find out through a third party that you're job searching.

Finally, remember that asking for references is a key part of professional networking and that the favor goes both ways. If you ask someone for a reference, offer to stand ready to provide them with one should they ever need it. Always write a formal thank-you note or email both after they’ve agreed to serve as your reference and after you’ve landed a job. People like to know that their efforts have contributed to another’s success. Here's more information on who to use as a professional reference.

What to Include on a Reference List

The reference list should contain full contact information for each reference including name, job title, company, address, and contact information. For example:

Janine Mercantile
ABD Company
12 Demonda Lane
Hartsville, NC 06510

If you are selected for an interview, print out copies of your list of references to bring with you, along with extra copies of your resume.

Keep Your List of References Updated

In an economic climate where people are more willing and likely to “job hop” than their parents were, it can be a key job strategy to create, maintain, and update a reference list that impressively reflects your career history.

Networking (through both your own personal circle of contacts and through sites like LinkedIn) can be very valuable in building a reference list. Keep your reference list current and ready to apply for jobs, by touching base with your references now and then. Remember to let them know when you've applied for a job or have been selected for an interview, so they are aware they might be contacted.