How Many References Should You Have?

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how many references should you have

During the job interview process, a potential employer may ask you to submit references along with your application. Generally, if you’re a candidate that is being considered for the position, that request will happen towards the end of the hiring process. Once they get your references, the employer will then call and ask your references some questions about your background and experience to gather independent information about your fit for the role.

To that end, it’s important that you maintain a list of job references, and maintain relationships with those references, so that you an provide them to a potential employer when needed.

This article is going to answer the question “how many references should you have,” walk you through some best practices related to job references, and answer other common questions.

What is a Job Reference?

A job reference is someone that can speak to your professional skills as background as a part of a job hiring process. Ideally, this will be somebody that you have worked closely with in a professional capacity in the past that can speak to relevant skills required for the job to which you’re applying.

Often, you will be asked to supply contact information for job references with your initial application, or you have completed all of your interviews. The employer will then call those references with a set of questions about your experience and background for the job prior to making an offer.

When an employer calls your job references, it is a good sign that you may be receiving a job offer, which will often come one – three business days after your final job reference has been checked.

This video from career strategist Cindy Makita provides a great overview of the basics of job references:

How Many References Should You Have?

The general best practice from career experts is that job seekers should have three to five relevant references. Now, an employer may ask for more or less references depending upon the position, but three is the most common number of references that a company will request so you want to have at least three possible references available to you.

Who Should Be My References?

Ultimately, the references that you list on your job application are going to depend somewhat upon the position. You want references that can speak to your relevant experience for that particular job so you should tailor who you provide based upon who can best speak to your experience for that role.

That said, in general, you’ll want to have one or multiple of the following types of people listed as your job references:

  • A boss from a previous employer: In general, previous bosses are going to be your most relevant references. A manager will have directly evaluated the quality of your work and will know you well. They’re uniquely equipped to speak to your experience for a role.
  • A direct report from a previous employer: If you’re applying for a management role, then having a previous direct report as a reference will be helpful. They can speak to your management practices and what it’s like to work for you.
  • A colleague from a previous employer: Outside of people you worked for or that worked for you, a colleague is going to be your next best reference. Ideally, it’s someone that benefited from your work or that you worked closely with towards the same goal.
  • A teacher or mentor: Having a teacher or mentor as your reference is going to be most common for people that are in school or coming out of school. However, that doesn’t always need to be the case. Having a mentor who is respected and successful can be a great reference.
  • A person that benefitted from your volunteer work: If you’ve done previous volunteer work that is relevant to the role that you’re applying for, listing someone that benefitted from that work, or that you volunteered with, can be a fantastic reference.

Who Should Not Be My References?

not be my references

Something that is not discussed enough is the type of people who should not be your references. To make it clear who to avoid as a reference, I’ve provided a quick list of those that you should not list as references:

  • Personal friends: As much as a personal friend may speak highly of you, it’s important to only list references that can speak to your relevant experience for the role.
  • Family members: Your mom, dad, or siblings may shout your praises from the rooftop but they would have an obvious bias that would reduce their credibility.

You also want to avoid anyone that might serve as a bad reference and speak negatively about your ability to do a job.

Frequently Asked Questions About Job References

To this point, we’ve discussed how many references you should have and the types of people that should be your references. However, there are still a variety of frequently asked questions around job references that I would like to address below.

Is Two References Enough?

In general, two references is not enough. Most companies will ask for three references, and it’s helpful to have more than three references available in case an employer is not able to get a hold of one of them.

How Many References is Too Many?

Ultimately, you don’t want to provide an employer with any more references than they request. That said, there is no limit to how many potential references that you want to have available to you. It’s a good idea to keep a deep bench of folks who will speak positively of your skills and experiences.

I Don’t Have Any Job References, What Should I Do?

If you don’t have any job references, and you need some for an immediate job application, you’ll need to get creative in thinking about who you can list. Old teachers, mentors, or volunteer partners could be good possibilities if you don’t have good candidates that you’ve directly worked with. 

Over the longer term, it will be important to proactively build relationships with folks that can be references. That will mean being professional and fostering good relationships at your current job. It could also mean being proactive and getting involved in trade organizations or volunteering in some way that will give you relevant experience and/or connections that could serve as references.

This video from CV surgeon has some good additional tips for what you can do if you don’t have any references:

How Recent Should Job References Be?

The more recent the better and, ideally, you want references from one of your last couple of jobs.

However, the quality of the reference is more important than the recency of the reference. So prioritize someone that will speak the most highly of you over someone that can speak to your most recent work.

As an example, for me personally, I would still list my very first boss as a reference because I know how well he would speak of me, even though I haven’t worked for him for almost a decade.  

Do I Need to Tell Somebody That I Listed Them as a Reference?

Yes, you should tell your references that you listed them for a job opening. Generally, you’ll want to let them know after a company let’s you know that they’re going to call your references.

That way, your references will know to expect a call, can prep what to say, and will be more likely to answer a call from a number they don’t know.

Additionally, if it’s someone that you haven’t spoken to in a while, or you’re not sure what they would say about you, it’s a good idea to check with them before listing them in the first place.

Conclusion

In general, you want to maintain a deep bench of potential references and have at least three to five people that could serve as potential references.

Those people should be able to speak to your skills and capacities for the role that you’re applying for and ideally have some experience working with you in a professional context

About the author

Dan Slocum

Dan is the founder of Best Fit Work and is a business professional with over 10 years of experience. He has been a hiring and people manager on multiple occasions, and has also gone through the hiring process himself at a variety of different companies. Dan serves as a career counselor on the side. He writes to share content, tools, and resources to help people discover and thrive in their own best fit work.

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