Who can you use as a professional reference?

by Pranav Ramesh
February 08, 2021

Many job seekers view their professional references as an afterthought. They simply add “References available upon request” at the end of their resume, wait for an employer to ask for them, then scramble to come up with a few names.

This could turn out to be a dire mistake.

Though you may not include a laundry list of references with every resume you submit, having a strategically crafted document ready and available is critical. Use this guide to find and choose your professional references before you need them.

Topics Covered:

  • When to include professional references
  • Whom not to use as a professional reference
  • Whom to use as a professional reference

When to include professional references

Obviously, when a hiring manager asks you for your professional references, you require a readymade list on hand, all set to be sent out immediately. But there are two other scenarios when you should include your professional resumes without being asked.

When you don’t have much experience:

The main reason seasoned professionals omit the references is to keep their resumes short. But if that’s not the case, though, and you do not have much experience, feel free to include them. If you are a recent college graduate or are looking to make a career change, and your resume feels a bit empty, two or three high-value references at the bottom could be a good idea

When the job description mentions it:

Be sure to read the job description thoroughly. Not just what it says literally, but what the employer means by their choice of words. If the job description mentions anything about references, such as ‘reference checks to be performed’, include them in your resume so the interviewer doesn’t have to hunt you down for them.

Who not to use as a professional reference

You want your professional references to speak highly of you, of course, but they must be qualified as well. This is why it’s best to avoid mentioning the following connections as references:

  • Family Members: Especially those with the same last name. Even if their last name is different, it’s usually best not to risk listing them as thorough employers have a multitude of ways to look for connections.
  • Friends: You may think your closest compadres know you best, but they really only know one side of you. For example, even if they know that you are a great listener, when asked, they may not be able to explain how that characteristic translates into a business setting.
  • Peers: You may consider some of your peers, who may even be bosses in their own companies. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid listing them as a professional reference. Talk with them, ask for their direct and honest feedback, and listen to how they describe you. If they sound like they are describing a friend, leave them out. But if they can explain how your unique soft skills helped your latest project succeed, it’s full-steam ahead.

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Who to use as a professional reference

Your best professional references will be people that you have previously worked with, who know what you are great at, and who are excited to tell people about it. Ideally, you want to find two to three people with a combination of those things:

  • Bosses or Supervisors: While not every professional reference has to be a boss of yours, the higher the position the better. Though you may not care much about titles, the person reviewing your resume might. Even if they don’t, a rave review from the Director of Software Development looks and sounds much better than one from a Junior Developer, all else being the same.
  • Colleagues: Your peers can be great professional references as well. If you have worked closely with them, and you know they will advocate for you, they may have more information than your manager. Try to think of peers who you have helped, impressed or both. If someone you worked with needed a lot of help and was always grateful for your guidance, they can make a great professional reference.
  • Professors or Mentors: If you don’t have much work experience, you may not have many professional references to call on. This is often the case for recent graduates or those new to the workforce. If this is the case, feel free to call on former teachers, professors, mentors, or anyone else who understands your personality and how it would bring value to the workplace.


Not every hiring manager will require a list of professional references. If they haven’t asked for them in the job description, and you have enough work experience to fill your one-page resume, it’s best to leave them out until the recruiter specifically asks for references. Even if that’s the case, keep a list of the right connections ready, so you can share it whenever needed.

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