Professional References: Who You Can & Cannot Use

Andrea Barger |
Andrea (she/her) is our head of PR at Snagajob, where she’s focused on telling the world how we help hourly workers and employers. Her first hourly job was as a lifeguard.

Who can I use for a job reference? 

Dos and don’ts with professional references

When you’re applying for a new job, the job application or recruiter may ask you to provide a professional reference sheet or list along with your resume. Or, if you’re being considered for a position after an interview, you may be asked to share references then. 

So, what exactly are references and who should you use? How do you ask someone to be a reference and how do you list them for a job? We’re going to break it down for you.

What is a professional reference and when would I use one?

A professional reference is a person who can provide a recommendation or confirm your qualifications for a position. These people should be able to attest to your work ethic, skills and achievements in your past roles. By using people who can give specific examples of your work, credentials and reliability, you are giving your potential new employer great reasons to hire you. 

You may need to include a list of professional references when applying for a job, in addition to your resume and/or cover letter. Or, you may be asked to provide references during or after a job interview. Either way, it’s important to be prepared and have a list on hand and ready to go when the time comes. 

What’s an example of a professional reference?

There are a number of people you can select as a professional reference, and they may vary depending on where you’re at in your career. 

Think about the job you’re applying for and the qualifications you need to get hired. Choose references who can attest to those job skills. Good examples of professional references include:

  • College professors, coaches or other advisors (especially if you’re a recent college graduate or don’t have a lengthy work history)

  • Former employer (the person who hired and paid you)

  • Former supervisor (this person may have trained you, overseen your work, provided you with role instruction or direction, dictated your day-to-day tasks, etc.)

  • Former coworkers.

  • Clients (this could be something you do on your own, such as babysit, dog walk, house sit, etc. Or, it could be people who you provide your professional services to, if you’re a hairdresser, landscaper, dog groomer, etc.).

  • Volunteer organization leaders

Can I use a friend or family member as a professional reference?

Just as there are several options for who you should list as a professional reference, there are also examples of people you should never list. Examples of this include:

  • Family

  • Friends

  • Anyone who fired you/any employer you were fired from

  • Anyone not expecting a call

  • Your cousin’s friend’s daughter’s boyfriend

  • A famous person you don’t know

The goal is to choose professionals who can attest to your work ethic and explain to someone why you’re best for the job. Even if you have a coworker who is more of a friend than a coworker, you may want to avoid listing them. Listing the above as references may actually hurt your chances of being hired more than help.

What’s a personal or character reference?

Depending on the position you’re applying for, the application or interviewer may ask for a list of personal or character references. This is just like it says—personal. These people should be able to speak to who you are as an individual, so they should be someone you know relatively well. You want them to be able to share your personality and character with a potential employer. 

While it’s a good idea to have a list of personal references just in case, you should only share them if specifically asked. Good examples include:

  • Teachers, professors or advisors

  • Volunteer leaders

  • Religious workers

  • Friends

  • Coaches

  • Neighbors 

  • Coworkers you know on a personal level

When reading an application or speaking with an interviewer, make sure you read carefully and you’re clear whether they would like professional or personal references. That way you can provide them with the exact references they’re looking for, and the best ones to help you get the job. In most cases, they’ll request professional references.

Should I list my current employer as a reference?

Some job applications or interviewers may request you list your current employer and ask if they have permission to contact them. In most cases, this could be awkward for both you and your current employer. You probably don’t want your employer to know you’re looking for a new job until you know you want the job and you’ve been given an offer.

Most of the time, it’s understood that you won’t include your current employer as a reference for confidentiality reasons. However, you could share their name and contact information once a formal offer is made. 

If you feel comfortable and trust them, you are welcome to list current coworkers as references. Sometimes they may be the most qualified to answer questions about your responsibilities and skills. However, only do so if you feel confident in providing that person’s information. 

How do I ask someone to be a reference?

The key here is to always make sure you ask someone if you can list them as a job reference, and check in each time you list them. Ensure they are comfortable accepting the role of being a reference. 

Even if you asked them a while ago but are getting back into job searching again, give them a heads up you’re searching again and they may be hearing from someone soon. 

A good way to ask someone to be a reference is either by calling them or sending an email. Ask if they think they know you and/or your work well enough to speak about it, and if they feel comfortable doing so. Or, you could ask them if they feel comfortable giving a positive reference. By asking ahead of time, you give them the opportunity to turn it down if they don’t believe they can or don’t have the time to speak to someone.

Be sure to thank the person in advance for taking the time to talk to a potential employer, and update them on your job status if you get hired. You may also want to ask if they can remain a reference for you in the future should you ever need one. Again, don’t forget to let them know each time you start up your search and list them so they’re aware they may be contacted.

How to list references for a job

When you apply for jobs or go to an interview, have a copy of at least three references with you. Even if the interviewer doesn’t ask for it, you should offer it up before you leave and encourage them to call. When you list the references, you should include:

Reference Name, Reference Relationship

Company Name

Company Address

Reference Phone Number

Reference Email

Some people list references directly on their resume. While you can do this, it’s better to have a separate reference sheet. This can help ensure your current employer doesn’t get notified—directly or indirectly—that you’re looking for a new job before you’re ready to share it with them.

You may also have a letter of reference or recommendation from a previous employer. You can provide it, along with your reference list, with a job application or upon request after an interview. It’s always a good idea to ask an employer to write you a letter of reference (if you leave on good terms) so you have it to use in the future. 


Have more questions about who to use as a reference? Ask in the comments!