What are Professional References?

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  • Originally Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 July 2018
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Professional references are people who can provide personalized and experience-driven information about someone’s job performance and suitability for employment. Most of the time, these people are former bosses or co-workers who have first-hand experience with how a certain person performs on the job. Employers often ask for a list of professional references along with other application materials — resumes, cover letters, and such — so as to provide a more rounded snapshot of the applicant’s abilities and skills.

Who Qualifies as a Professional Reference

The main requirement for any professional reference is that he or she has some experience of the requesting person’s job performance. The best candidates are usually supervisors, who have direct knowledge of how the person works with others, handles pressure, and responds to criticism.

Difference Between Professional and Personal References

It is tempting for many applicants to choose references who know them well in a personal capacity — family friends, community acquaintances, or those who hold influential roles in society, for instance. Unless these people can speak to an applicant’s work-related attributes, however, they are more properly known as “personal references.”

Personal references are important, and many jobs and academic programs request the names of people in this category. They should always be kept distinct from people who can speak about professional skills, however. Conflating the two can lead to confusion and possibly disqualification.


Strategies for Asking for References

It can sometimes be intimidating to ask colleagues and work acquaintances to serve as references, but getting permission is an important part of the process. Not all employers contact references that applicants list, but many do — which can lead to a lot of awkwardness if the reference is not expecting a call.

Many job search experts recommend keeping an active list of professional references who have consented to having their names put forward. This way, when jobs come up, applicants can simply chose the most relevant people without having to initiate contact directly. It is often a good idea to inform references that they might be contacted by a particular employer, but this is not usually required.

How to Submit References to Potential Employers

Often times, job postings or advertisements are very specific when it comes how many references should be provided. Some ask for names and contact information in a resume; others require actual letters written in support of a candidate’s application. It is usually best to follow the employer’s guidelines precisely. If no mention is made of referrals, it is perfectly acceptable to include the line “references available upon request” at the end of a cover letter or resume, or to bring a list of names along to an interview.

Concerns for New Job Seekers

People who have never had a job before often struggle with professional references because they don't have a defined work history. Teachers or professors, landlords, or others who have known the applicant for an extended period of time may be good candidates in these circumstances, even though they are not strictly “professional.” New job seekers should note that they have no job history when they provide references so that employers are not suspicious about the lack of former employers.


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Discuss this Article

Post 5

I have an application that asks for three social acquaintances and three professional references that have a reputable standing in the community (excluding family members, previous teachers, past and present employers and fellow employees). I'm stumped!

I cannot think of anyone to list. Someone recommended my doctor or priest but I have only seen my current doctor once and I don't go to church.

Any suggestions?

Post 4

Is there some shortcut around this? I'm sick of asking three people for a favor every time I apply for a job. I can't imagine that everyone out there has three professors who have agreed to talk to employers for them.

Post 3

I agree. I have found that employers are usually quite impressed with glowing references from former college professors or advisors.

Post 2

A professional reference would be from anyone that you have dealt with professionally in the past. A landlord or apartment management would qualify because you did indeed deal with them in a professional aspect, even if you did not directly work for them or with them. The best professional references are former teachers or professors, college advisors or deans, landlords, bank managers, managers from past employment or even acquaintances who you may have worked with, but who were/are not friends.

Post 1

Are professional references distinct from personal references? I was always under the impression that professional references should only be from people with whom you've worked. So while a college professor might fit this definition, a landlord wouldn't - he or she would not have any idea about my work history or skills.

I have, on the other hand, used people that I haven't worked with as references - these were people in the same field as I am, however, and who I felt could speak to my knowledge of the industry.

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