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by Kaitlin McManus | November 20, 2020


Asking for a job reference is one of those things that is perfectly normal and necessary, and yet potentially uncomfortable. There something about asking, “Hey, is it okay if a stranger calls you and asks you a lot of questions about me? And, if so, will you say nice things?” References may be a routine part of the job-search process, but when you strip it down to what it really is, it’s weird. And who are you supposed to ask to be your references, anyway? Well, not to fear—allow me to walk you through the three questions you should ask yourself when trying to pick your best bets for a good reference.

Is This Person an Appropriate Reference?

I think I first learned about job references in middle school. And I asked myself what is now a very embarrassing question: “Is my mom a good job reference?” No. No she is not. Finding someone who’s an appropriate work reference can be challenging, particularly if you’re just joining the workforce. If you’ve never had a job, who’s supposed to attest to the fact that you’re a great worker? It’s a catch-22. And even if you’re a little further into your journey as a working adult, that doesn’t necessarily make selecting an appropriate reference easier—circumstances are everything.

That said, it’s still all-but-necessary to make sure that your reference is someone who can speak to your work ethic, work style, and general personality. A previous or current coworker (especially a supervisor) is the most appropriate option. But don’t forget to think outside the box! Professors can be an excellent substitute for a coworker if you have little work experience, particularly if you have a close relationship with them. Do you do any volunteer work? The volunteer manager may be an excellent person to turn to.

In general, it’s best if you avoid friends or family, unless you’ve done work for them in the past in some capacity. You might try making a list of the people you’ve worked with and for, and any other supervisors or mentor-figures in your life—these people are going to be your best bets.

Will This Person Give Me a Good Reference?

Now comes the part where you have to be honest with yourself. As appropriate a person may be for a professional reference, you have to consider what that person will say about you to another potential employer. Hopefully, you’re the consummate professional, but as I said before, circumstances are everything. Say, for example, that you had to go through HR to sort out an issue you had with a coworker. Even if the issue was resolved, and even if it was resolved amicably, they’re probably not the first person you should be rushing to ask for a reference. Similarly, if you were less than responsible at one of your previous jobs—if you had a tendency to be late or if you left under not-ideal circumstances, for example—that place may not be the best pool from which to select a reference, either. You want to put your best foot forward when it comes to professional references. So as you review your list of appropriate references, think about what each person might say if they were asked about what it’s like to work with you. And again, be honest with yourself—even the best-intentioned among us can put people off or annoy them, or you may just feel friendlier about the person than they feel toward you. I don’t say this to make you question your relationships with your coworkers, but rather to remind you that some references are better than others, and you should be mindful of your relationships when you choose them.

Do I Have Their Permission?

This is absolutely critical when it comes to getting a good reference: You have to ask! This is non-negotiable, no matter how awkward it might feel to do so. And it can be awkward, particularly to ask someone that you’re currently working with for a reference—it tips them off that you’re planning to leave your position, which may not always be ideal for you. But even so, this is a necessary step. It ensures that your reference can prepare for the conversation they will have with your potential future employers. Giving them time to prepare is polite, and provides them the chance to think up all the nice things that they’ll say about you when asked. In other words, it’s better for both of you. So work out a polite and respectful way to ask—and make sure to get their preferred emails and phone numbers for such a request.

Getting professional references is something everyone will have to do at some point in their lives, so make sure that you’re acquiring good references in an appropriate manner. It’s important that you make a good impression on any future employers, and the word of the people familiar with your personality and work product can go a long way towards giving you that extra boost of credibility that could help you land that job.