Young female professional smiling staring at her computer looking up professional references

When it comes to professional references, one size most definitely does not fit all. Some companies are incredibly diligent, and some don’t ask even for them. I’ve worked with hiring managers who place no value on checking references and others who will only consider candidates who come with glowing reviews from every former employer. 

As the owner of a recruiting firm that has filled thousands of jobs, I know one thing with absolute certainty: It is impossible for applicants to predict how reference checks will be handled from one job opportunity to the next. 

The safe bet is to assume you’ll be required to provide references in the final stages of an interview process as a condition of employment. Here are some of the most common types of pre-employment references and how you can prepare for when you’re asked to provide them.

1. Personal references

Personal references are most commonly used for students, new grads, or anyone early in their career. If this job is entry-level, the employer will know it’s impossible to provide professional references that don’t yet exist! 

Hiring managers and recruiters use personal references to learn more about a candidate’s soft skills, such as adaptability, resilience, and humility – which are often as important as their job skills. 

The goal is to provide references who know you well to speak to your character. Ideally, they will be able to share experiences that give your prospective employer a feel for how you’ll perform if hired for the job.

To prepare, consider all the people who have played a significant role in your life as an authority figure. This group is a good starting point:

  • Teachers
  • Coaches
  • Mentors
  • Neighbors
  • Family friends
  • Club or volunteer leaders

Once you have a list, gather their contact information, and reach out to the top two, three, or four who you believe are best suited for the soon-to-be task to ask in advance if you can use them as a reference. 

Expert tip: When asking for a reference, be polite and direct. Say, “Would you be comfortable providing a positive reference for me based on our collaboration/work together?”

2. Peer references

I have to be honest—as a recruiting professional, I don’t see any benefit to checking peer references. If given a choice of who to list as a reference, would you choose a colleague who speaks objectively about your strengths and weaknesses or one who happens to be one of your closest friends? You’d have to be a lunatic to go with the former!

My personal feelings aside, in many cases, recruiters are simply looking to “check a box” when it comes to references. Does this mean they aren’t doing their job well? Maybe. However, as a candidate, if you can get away with only using your buddies as references, I won’t tell you not to. Consider it a win! 

While you may trust that your peer will say good things about you, set yourself up for success by sharing some details about the job or company in advance. The more they understand what’s relevant to your new position, the better they’ll be able to help. In other words, help them help you!

A quick word of caution when choosing peer references: Never ask anyone, including a good friend, to misrepresent the nature of your professional relationship. It’s unfair to put anyone in an uncomfortable position on your behalf, and the risk isn’t worth the potential reward. 

3. Former managers

Now we’re getting serious. Providing a former manager or supervisor is a level beyond using personal contacts or peers. Consider the phrasing of these two options a recruiter could use:

Option 1: “Please provide names and contact information for two references.”

Option 2: “Please provide names and contact information for your direct manager at your previous employers.” 

We’ve already established that some recruiters don’t take the process seriously. Still, many others are very strict about who they will or will not accept as a professional reference. My advice to every job seeker is to anticipate that you will be required to provide an answer to option 2.

If you’ve remained in touch with your former manager(s), great—this will be easy. If not, track down their contact information and ask if they would be willing to provide a professional reference. 

If you departed your previous jobs on good terms, there’s no cause for concern. If, on the other hand, one or more previous jobs ended poorly, consider proactively addressing what may be a poor reference. 

When asked to provide contact information, give the recruiter (or hiring manager) a heads-up. Every situation is unique, so I won’t attempt to provide specific guidance on what to say, but my general advice is to:

  • Tell the recruiter/manager to expect a less-than-favorable recommendation
  • Provide a high-level overview of the history (i.e., explain what happened)
  • Share your takeaway(s) from the experience and reasons why it helped you improve and evolve professionally

Here’s the deal: Everyone makes mistakes. Even if you were completely at fault, being upfront and honest can help you gain respect from your new employer. 

Consider it good news that you get to address and clarify the past… because that doesn’t happen with the final reference type.

4. Backdoor references

Of all the ways reference checks happen, this one is the most challenging for a candidate to navigate. A backdoor reference occurs when a recruiter or hiring manager reaches out to a mutual connection or someone within their professional network without asking the candidate for permission.

It’s human nature to ask someone we know and trust to share their opinion. Doing so off the record offers employers a candid, unfiltered perspective on a candidate’s work ethic, abilities, and fit within a company culture. 

These references can come from anyone familiar with your past work:

  • Coworkers
  • Subordinates 
  • Clients 
  • Leaders/managers (whose names you didn’t provide)
  • Personal connections

You may consider a backdoor reference to be an unethical approach, but again, that’s a conversation for a different day. What’s most important is to know that it’s a common practice that can’t be prevented. Perhaps even worse, you likely won’t even be aware it’s taking place.

So, what can you do about it? My recommendation is to always leave a job with grace and professionalism. Go out in a way that you’ll want to be remembered.

…but sometimes it’s too late. If you’ve burned a professional bridge in the past, you’re probably aware of it. Consider how you may be able to rectify the situation to keep it from following you. Generally speaking, people appreciate apologies and tend to be forgiving. If appropriate, reach out and make amends – it’s typically a good practice even ultimately unnecessary for the job you’re currently seeking.

A few final thoughts

Never list references on your resume. There’s no upside to doing so, and it opens the door for those people to be contacted for reasons unrelated to the intended purpose. Instead, only provide contact information for your references if it looks like an offer is impending for a job you intend to accept.

Also, always give your reference(s) a heads-up by letting them know when you’ve shared their information. It’s the courteous, proper thing to do while giving the reference a reason to be on the lookout for a call or email from a contact they wouldn’t otherwise recognize. 

Finally, sometimes, setting the stage for a likely bad reference during your interview is necessary. Acknowledging a past mistake is commendable and almost always received well. It’s a fine line that requires careful consideration, but a proactive approach can allow you to control the message and get out ahead of a potential reason for an offer to be withdrawn. 

Best of luck in your job search, and happy hunting!!

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn