What Are References?

Definition & Examples of References

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References are people who can discuss your work habits and history with potential employers.

Learn more about how references work.

What Is a Reference?

References are people who are familiar with your work and willing to share what they know with potential employers. A reference also refers to the content of the information, insights, and experience that another person is willing to share about your work.

How References Work

References are checked by potential employers, financial institutions, professional associations, clients and customers, and any organization that considers checking your personal integrity and ethics important. When you designate a list of references for a potential employer, the employer may or may not contact them.

The employer may contact anyone who appears on your job application as your supervisor or manager. Or the employer may approach contacts and colleagues they know personally, or people their contacts know in your industry or professional association, to obtain references.

Job references provide employers with insights and thoughts on how well an individual performed in a previous job. They're looking for information on how a candidate will fit into the company's culture and whether the former employer would hire the individual again. Employers learn a lot about potential employee's strengths, weaknesses, and values by listening to the responses of references.

The employer's options in learning about your job history, your work contributions, and your ability to interact professionally with work colleagues are unlimited. In most employment applications, you give the potential employer permission to conduct background checks, including contacting anyone who can shed light on your previous job performance.

Choosing a Reference

Selecting references is challenging. Choose people who are positive about you, articulate in their ability to talk about your contributions, and willing and available at short notice.

You'll want to develop references while you're currently employed. Scrambling for references when you find yourself in the job market unexpectedly is the worst time to find and develop references. Your attempts to reach people and bring them up-to-date on your current situation is difficult and time-consuming during a job search. Develop your references before you need them—and periodically stay in touch with them.

Keep in mind that some companies have policies about who can provide a formal reference and under what circumstances. They may be limited in the information they can provide. For example, they might only be able to confirm your employment dates.

Types of References

You'll need different references depending on your situation.

  • Employment references: These are people who are familiar with and can speak positively about your work. The best employment references are your current and former bosses. Colleagues, customers, and other managers can also be effective references.
  • Professional references: People who are professional colleagues can also serve as references. You may share a professional association membership or leadership position, have worked on a committee together, or organized and led the neighborhood condo association.
  • Personal references: These are people who know you and your character well. Personal references are often friends, fellow volunteers in social situations, ministers or other clergy members, and colleagues who know you both personally and professionally.

References can also be delivered in writing or verbally.

Written References

Written references are difficult to acquire and are quickly out-of-date and inconsequential. Many employers refuse to provide written references for fear of eventual litigation. This is why so many organizations now refer requests for written references to their human resources offices; these offices usually provide employment verification.

Many employers ask their employees to refrain from writing references as well; written references have a short shelf life and many recipients use them well beyond the time frame their writer intended.

Try to obtain written references from employers who are going out of business, bosses who are retiring or moving to another company, college professors who may not stay closely in touch with you, and colleagues with whom you expect little interaction in the future. Other references are more effective delivered verbally.

Written references are common in academia, whether you're applying to grad school or for a faculty position.

Verbal References

Verbal references are informal and less work for your references. Many people are willing to discuss your strengths if you've been an effective, contributing employee. If you left on good terms, former supervisors typically wish you well and hope that your next professional or career moves are successful.

Always prepare your references in advance for a potential reference check. Contact them and let them know the position you're applying for and confirm they can serve as a positive reference. They can't help you if they don't know what you need.

Key Takeaways

  • References are people who can discuss your work habits and history with potential employers.
  • References are checked by potential employers, financial institutions, clients and customers, and any organization that considers checking your personal integrity and work ethic important.
  • Choose people who are positive about you, articulate in their ability to talk about your contributions, and willing and available at short notice.
  • Employment references focus on your work history and ethic. Professional references are from colleagues who are familiar with your work through non-work organizations. Personal references typically attest to your character. 
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