The Dos And Don’ts Of Using References On Your Resume

Published on: 31 October 2020

“References available upon request.”

Heard of this one?

The trite, superfluous phrase was all the rage decades ago. Nowadays, you’d barely find anyone that recommends it.

But what about actual references?

“Should I put references on my resume?” is a common question you may have even asked yourself at one point in your career.

At Enhancv, we strive to give you job search advice that gets results. We want your resume to cut through the noise and land you interviews.

Excited?

Awesome! We’ll guide you through the perils of references on a resume.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • When and when not to include references on a resume;
  • How important references are and how to approach them;
  • How to include a reference list;
  • And what to do when you have no references.

If you’re wondering how to go about listing references on your resume, we got you covered.

Let’s dive in.

When Not to Include References

Generally, you shouldn’t list them.

“References” constitutes an obsolete resume section, for the most part.

You should list references on a resume only if the job description explicitly requires you to do so. Usually, that happens with some legal or federal jobs.

Otherwise, it’s a waste of valuable space.

Often, it’s better to leave references off your resume and let your prospective employer ask for them.

Why?

You’ll be in control of your reference list. That means you can choose the most relevant referees, determine their order on the list, and give them a heads-up.

Here’s the deal:

Your resume is your most powerful personal marketing tool. If job search was an NBA team, your resume would be the MVP.

You should treat it as such.

Resume references are usually required near the end of the hiring process.

The majority of job ads don’t request references. Neither do hiring managers expect to see them during initial applications.

So, when are references appropriate?

Let’s see how it’s like on the other side.

How employers use references

Do employers even call references?

According to a 2019 survey by HR.com, 96% of employers perform at least one type of background check.

Referees vouch for your competence and character. So, chances are they’re going to call one of yours, at a minimum.

Don’t fret, though, it’s a good sign if they do.

See, the bulk of employers contact references on a resume (or a separate document) when you make the shortlist. Often, only when they’re about to send you an offer.

What do they ask your referees?

Mainly, employers are interested in making sure you’re the awesome candidate you seemed on paper and during the interview.

They’ll want to know about things like your employment dates, performance on the job, work ethics, and why you left your previous employer.

Clearly, you need to choose your referees carefully.

And that leads up to…

How to Request a Reference

Navigating the recruitment funnel is a bit like playing chess.

You must be a few moves ahead to have any chance of getting an offer. This goes for resume references too.

So, how do you go about requesting references for your resume?

Well, you need to:

  • Determine who should be a reference on your resume;
  • Follow reference-request etiquette.

Both steps are crucial to put the odds in your favor when applying for jobs.

1. Determine who should be a reference on your resume

How do you decide? Well, it depends on the circumstances.

Do you currently have a job? Maybe you’re interested in finding a more rewarding position or just seeing what’s out there. In this case, don’t list your boss as a reference.

Doing so might put you at risk.

Although potential employers should request permission beforehand, you don’t want to take the chance of your employer knowing about your plans.

Are you in between jobs? Then it’s fine if you list a previous employer as a reference. Only if you’re certain they’ll give you a glowing testimonial, though.

Either way, pick referees that put you in the best light possible.

For example, If you’re not on good terms with a previous supervisor, pick a coworker that would speak highly of you.

Avoid personal references as their opinions of you are biased. Go for professional references such as your current or former managers, colleagues, professors, and even customers.

List the most recent, relevant references. Normally, hiring managers aren’t interested in referees you’ve worked with 15 years ago.

Okay, you know the who, but what about the how?

2. Follow reference-request etiquette

What your referees say about you should closely match or improve upon what’s in your resume.

Naturally, this means you should be mindful of who’s on your reference list, and, you should have them on deck prior to sending job applications.

Here’s how you choose your references on a resume:

  • Start with a big pool of potential references (managers, supervisors, colleagues, etc.)
  • Narrow down the list to the most relevant and recent referees
  • Whittle it down further to people you’re on good terms with
  • Now pick the ones with a positive opinion of you
  • Always go with the most eloquent referees

Done? Great!

Now here’s how you ask someone to be your reference:

  • Contact them well before applying for jobs so they can be prepared
  • Touch base and tell them about your current situation
  • Ask if they feel comfortable being your referee
  • Let them take their time to get back to you

If they say no, thank them for their time, and move on to the next person.

If they say yes, though, show gratitude. Paint a clear picture of what they should expect as your references. Send them your resume, the job you’re applying for, and any helpful details.

Tell your referees that they may get a call, receive an email, or be asked to write a recommendation letter within a month or two.

Now, you know how to select referees and request references, which leave us with another piece of the jigsaw.

How many references on resume

Five, if possible, and three at the minimum.

Most jobs require one to three references for a resume. However, you should aim for five to seven if you’re after executive or senior roles.

Whichever the number, list your references in order of relevance.

You got your list, let’s talk about whether it belongs on or off your resume.

Decide how to send your reference list

If you’re going to include your reference list on your resume, make sure you don’t cramp things up.

Enhancv resume templates feature a neat section for references.

Better yet, create a separate document for your reference list. When asked, send it as an attachment in reply.

Alternatively, your LinkedIn profile has a section called “recommendations,” which you may use to include references along with their testimonials.

Reference list format template

Going with a separate list? Here’s how you put it together.

Reference name

Professional title

Company name

Street address

City, State, Zip code

Phone number

Email address

Description

The address is your referee’s, not their company’s. Make sure that every detail is current.

What to say in the description? Write a couple of lines stating your relationship with the person.

A little unsure? Let’s see it in action, here’s an example of a reference list:

Elon Musk

CEO

SpaceX

1 Rocket Road

Hawthorne, California, 90250

(213) 555-5555

Elon@spacex.com

Elon was my boss during my stint at SpaceX from 2007 to 2011. I was part of the team that launched the first privately funded, liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit.

Such a lucky break having Elon as your reference, right?

Things can be a lot less favorable…

What do you do if you don’t have any references?

That’s rare, like really rare.

It would be unfortunate, but don’t despair.

Most people you’ve worked or done business with make decent references, including clients, business contacts, and suppliers.

If you can’t get even one professional reference, though, go with personal ones that can vouch for your character. Family, friends, and even classmates can be great personal referees.

Can’t do that either?

Suggest a probation period or freelance work so you can prove yourself. This can be effective because you’re offering potentially great performance at minimal risk to the employer.

Whatever you do, don’t pay for someone to pose as your reference.

Gotchas & Takeaways

References on a resume is a treacherous path that looks deceivingly easy to traverse. You need to know when, who, how, and where to come up with a good reference list.

It all starts with choosing your references, pick them wisely.

Remember, though, your resume gets your foot in the door, not your referees.

Have you learned something new? Got useful tips? Let us know in the comments below.

Kal Dimitrov

Kal has 10 years of experience as a marketer and lecturer in youth leader organisations, with a focus on career and job skills enhancement. He has written and edited over 100 resume creation guides for different jobs. Kal is also a co-founder of a career accelerator hub that helps students and recent graduates excel at job interviews and get the job of their dreams.

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