A reference list could make or break your career.

Imagine you are at the end stages of a long interview for your dream job. You feel the interview is going great but a drop of sweat making its way through your forehead betrays your confidence. You want that job so bad!

And then you hear that line:

‘Alright everything looks great… Hey, do you have a reference list I can check to get a better idea of your work’s history?’


What you do next is crucial. Think about it well.


Going through a reference list is your new employer’s chance to have a look at your profile objectively.

They want to compare their opinion of you (that they formed only after several meetings) with the opinion of people who worked with you for years.

They know your achievements, your work ethic, character, your loyalty, your values, your results and your attitude.

What is a reference list?

A reference list is a list of contacts comprised from people you have worked with, or worked for.

For each party you must include:

  • Name
  • Position
  • Workplace
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email

What are some pro tips to construct a reference list?

Ideally you can also include:

  • LinkedIn profile URL
  • The time period and workplace where you worked together
  • A small text which will tell your future employer why you have provided this contact. For example:
    • Even though I have worked for Mrs. Green in the early stages of my career and did not have the same skills back then that I do now, she can vouch for my impeccable work ethic and my conflict resolution skills.
    • I worked with John Brown at Technologica NYC back In 2010 on a project where we negotiated down the prices with our main suppliers. Over the course of two years we saved the company more than $50 000.
    • I worked for Jessica Blue as a freelancer on a marketing campaign to boost up the sales of her local business. She can confirm that for the short period of three months her sales went up by 40%.

How many contacts should I provide?

For an entry level position you can provide 3-5 contacts, whereas for a more senior position, you will need 5-8 contacts.

Why do you really need a reference list?

Your future employer will ask you for a reference list for three main purposes.

Purpose #1: They want to know if you lied on your CV about experience.

Purpose #2: They want to know more about your raw skills and results.

Purpose #3: They want to know more about your attitude.

When do you need a reference list?

Normally you will be asked for a reference list at the end of a successful interview. It is basically the last step before you get a job offer. It is a good idea to have a sheet of paper prepared, but you can also provide it digitally, after the interview. Just don’t be too late!

Some employers ask for a reference list at the very beginning, together with your application, motivation letter and CV.

However, do not include it readily available in your resume. 66% of employers prefer 1-page resume for entry level positions. For more senior level positions that is not the rule, however the volume is expected to come from job and skill descriptions.

Some employers will never ask you for anyone’s contacts, however, you are giving yourself the best chance if you come prepared. Make sure you have your paper, and tailor it to the specific employer you are applying for.

Don Georgevich will tell you in this video how your reference list should look to match your resume:


Jeff Shane, the founder Allison & Taylor Inc., among many, confesses he receives bad references for job candidates too often. About 50% of the contacts he is exploring do not speak favorably of the candidates.

When an employer has limited down the applicants for a job position to two or three, and they receive bad feedback they cannot afford to give the candidates the chance to explain themselves.

The stakes are too high. The wrong people do get hired often, and it costs the employer time and money if they are lucky. The higher the position, the bigger the risks. The company’s reputation could be on the line.

It’s a no go.

It is almost ironic how people focus so much on building their CV, being charming but strong on their interview, and then it could be all done away with one call to the wrong person.


1. Your ‘boss’

It is a common mistake especially among young people, who are taking their first career steps, to trust official titles a little bit too much.

Your ‘boss’ is not always the best person to vouch for your skills, your talents or your character.

Do not include the person who was supposed to follow up on your work – you need the person who actually did. Even your official supervisor might not be the one you reported to.

Especially in smaller businesses, a hierarchy could be messy. Provide the contact of the person who actually worked close with you and who knows the value of your work.

If asked for a reference your ‘boss’ will…

  • … not be engaged in the conversation because they do not know you
  • … sound unconvincing because they do not know your work well

If asked for a reference the real person you reported to will…

  • … accent on your greatest talents
  • … be able to talk numbers when asked about results
  • … speak convincingly about your work ethic
  • … can answer follow-up questions
  • … will be engaged and would want to contribute to your future wellbeing

You are allowed an exception if… your ‘boss’ is engaged in your work and has the history of helping young talented people from his team continue on their path by providing A-class references.

2. Parents or relatives

If you worked in a family business you might be tempted to include a family member as your contact.

Don’t do it:

  • No one needs that. It is pointless.
    • The motivation for a person to be a dedicated worker in a family business is quite different from the motivation to pursue their career. It is more often to be there to try to earn a good living for your family than to be working to prove yourself as any sort of specialist.
    • The career you are pursuing is most probably in a completely different field and your experience would be irrelevant.
  • No one will take that seriously
    • No matter how sincerely a relative compliments your skills and how they splurge about your achievements, they will be perceived more as a ‘proud mom’ than as a satisfied employer.
    • The closer the family member, the worse the idea. Add your mom’s phone number and you will be the laughing stock of the day.
  • Some will wonder why you had to do it
    • The hiring manager may think you lack real references.
    • The hiring manager may think you are trying to balance possible bad feedback from other contacts.

We have to say adding friends as make-believe employers is a disaster. CEO of Sewell Development Corp., Preston Wiley, comments it is easy to uncover any such false information and it is more common than most people think.

You are allowed an exception if… your relative is really business savvy and can talk objectively about your work. The bigger the family business, the safer you are. In all cases, make sure you provide a disclaimer to the hiring manager and tell them there is a point to your decision to add a family member to your list.

3. Your first employer

More often than not the feedback from your first employer will be irrelevant.

Are you the same person as you were back then? If you were younger you had a different attitude, different values and different priorities. If you were working while studying you might have been there for the experience. Now that you have a family to feed and spend time with, your approach will have changed.

Were you working in the same industry? Your first job was probably a job in the service industry, or an entry-level job at best. Waiting tables is a perfectly respectable thing to do, but it will not be interesting experience for a hiring manager in the IT field.

Were you doing the same job? Alright, even if you worked in the same job, you probably did not have the same responsibilities as you do now. You needed a completely different set of skills to perform there and this is what you showed. Your contact will not be able to comment on the skills you need to prove you have now.

You are allowed an exception if… you answered ‘Yes’ to all three questions above. If you feel like your perspective has not changed too much and if you feel strongly your experience is relevant, go for it.

4. Someone who fired you

It is a common misconception that you have to provide a contact for all positions you have worked in.

You don’t.

You might be trying to justify referencing someone who fired you like so:

  • ‘My future employer will want to know about my best and worst moments.’
  • ‘The hiring manager will feel like I am hiding things’

Bad. Idea.

What to do instead:

If it comes up, you can address it on the interview. Say that you wanted to give yourself your best chance to get this job because you really want it. You stand by your behavior on that position and you feel sad it ended badly. But you would find it unfair if that one situation stood between you and your new dream job.

It is a logic every hiring manager should understand. If they don’t, maybe you are better off. You need to work with people who show understanding and common sense towards their employees.

if it doesn’t come up, keep it on the down low.

You are allowed an exception if… your hiring manager asked for a complete list of contacts from every workplace on your CV. Still feel free to provide a disclaimer, as it is explained in the intro. Tell the hiring manager what this contact will give them as information. Try to steer the conversation in your favor – recommend they ask the contact for undeniable successes of yours on that position. That will soften the blow and keep the conversation objective.

5. The one who never gave you that promotion

This is a tricky one to detect. It would probably be more relevant for you if you are applying for a senior position.

When you are at that level chances are you probably have stacked a few corporate jobs in your CV with a heavy organizational structure and strict rules.

It is not uncommon that you felt stuck there with little chance of promotion or internal mobility.

You had that direct manager that loved your work so much and yet this information never got to the upper levels. You had your suspicions about them taking credit for your achievements.

But they were most definitely holding you back. You are probably not paranoid about this. There is a high chance they don’t want you to surpass them. They want to keep you down, because you are threatening their ego.

They will not happily recommend your work. They will be dismissive and detrimental to your achievements.

Such a conversation could be very toxic to your next career steps.

You are allowed an exception if… you have had the chance to address the situation and your concerns on the interview. Still, you are taking a great risk because this person will probably sound very convincing – remember they successfully held you back once. The risk is twice as high here because the concern is mostly applicable to high level senior positions.

6. Anyone who will not sound convincing

Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager. You would be contacting strangers with a request for information. And while you want to keep an open mind, you have your suspicions.

The stranger would be what stands between a motivated job candidate and their desired job. You will be giving that stranger a lot of power.

That explains the phenomenon that bad feedback is accepted as more sincere. A dishonest person would prefer to please a friend and say nice things about them.

Good feedback would raise some suspicions if it is not backed up by facts. After all an embellished skill set is the most common lie they catch applicants in.

The point is you should never put that power in the hands of someone who would not sound convincing:

  • Anyone who has difficulties expressing themselves. They have always been a little socially awkward and even if they have the best intentions, they will not be your best bet.
  • Anyone who is too busy. Your boss from two years ago is a great person and you did so much for them and kept them happy. But they never had more than 2 minutes for a conversation? Not a good choice. Scratch that name.
  • Anyone who is not qualified to speak about your work. That customer for whom you created a brilliant logo – will they be able to say more than just that they were ‘very happy with it’?

Your contact has to know how to recommend your work – the happiest team lead can be damaging to your rep if they get flustered or distracted and say the wrong thing.

Regardless of how much you worked for a customer, even if it is your best work, if they are not convinced of the result, they have no place on your reference list.

You are allowed an exception if… you have provided the hiring manager with an indication what questions they should ask that contact. Even the most difficult to understand person can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, for example. Provide the facts in advance and leave the contact the confirmation.

7. Just anyone

Understand this correctly: You ARE allowed to put people different from your boss, your team lead or your direct manager on the list.

It could be your:

  • Colleague.
  • Customer
  • Academic advisor.
  • Business partner.
  • Long-term employee.

Of course there are conditions:

  • You have to have had a significant impact on their work and/or life. For a short term relationship, you better have numbers they can confirm. For a long term relationship, their opinion will be important to vouch for you being consistent.
  • They have to be available. Don’t ask a busy boss, a new mom, or someone who left the country to be your contact. They will not be able to provide quality feedback for your case.
  • They have to be relevant to your new career step. Your academic advisor will only be relevant if you are applying for a job where your scientific background would come in handy. Your long-term employee will be important to talk to if you are applying for a position where people managing skills are a requirement.

You are allowed an exception if… you think about it long and hard and you can justify it. You are allowed to think out of the box if you have arguments to back your decision up. You cannot take impulsive decisions about your career.

For more bad (and good) ideas watch this video, produced by Vice:


Neglect to warn your contacts

Always call to check in with someone if you are about to use them on your reference list. Be nice and respectful. They are doing you a favor.

Show interest in how they are doing and promise to return the favor if you ever have the chance.

Forget to update the contact info

Someone changed their phone number or email?

There is nothing worse than missing the opportunity to impress your future boss because of a simple mistake like this.

It looks bad.

A) It looks like you are putting fake fillers in your reference list OR B) it looks like you are not doing your best to get the job from the very beginning.

Neglect to diversify your references

This article has already given you a pretty good idea who not to include in your reference list.

However, that does not mean you should only choose one type of contacts to add. A list of straight supervisors is boring. Ideally do add your relevant customers and colleagues.

Neglect to personalize your reference list

Your contacts MUST be relevant to the position you are applying for. Check your list before your important interview.

Warn the contacts what you are applying for and what information they will be supposed to validate. Add relevant experience and achievements only.

Provide too few contacts

Unless you are in the very beginning of your career path, you should be able to provide a healthy amount of contacts that could vouch for your skills and character.

Again, for an entry level job, aim for 3-5 contacts. For a senior position give out 5-8 contacts.

Provide too many contacts

Each and every one of the entries in your list must be there for a reason. Do not drown the interviewer in information.

You could not have more than 10 skills to prove and therefore not more than 10 people to talk to.

Do not add people whose purpose is redundant. Make sure your best recommendations will come first on the list.

Burn your bridges

Say thanks! If you get the job, get in touch with your contacts again.

Get some info – what were they asked for, what did they say, how long did they talk for?

Ask if you could use their contact in the future and if you could ever repay them.

Neglect a failure

Let’s say your interview went perfect. You said ‘Goodbye’ with a smile to the interviewer and you were supposed to wait for that job offer… and it never came. A week later you receive an email you are no longer considered.

There is a possibility someone of your contacts dropped the ball on you. Investigate. And throw them out from your list. They are not beneficial for you. And you cannot afford for this situation to be repeated.


A call to the right person can always put the odds in your favor:

The hiring manager knows they cannot always be objective. Job candidates with impressive charisma may turn out to have poor performance or poor attitude towards the job. A contact from your reference list will be able to tell from experience.

Make sure you take special care of your list. Build it with care and personalize it to your applications.

Keep being friendly to your contacts. They owe you nothing. They are doing you a great favor. Be nice and repay it if you have the chance.

A reference list has great power, but it cannot guarantee you landing the perfect job. As with everything else, when it comes to your career, you just need to make sure you are giving yourself the best chance. Because you deserve it.

The 7 Most Disastrous Mistakes in a Job Reference List

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