What is a Job Reference?


what is a job reference

If you’re early in your career and are out applying for jobs for the first time, you may have come across a requirement to provide job references as a part of an application or interview process.

And if you’re reading this article, you’re likely wondering what is a job reference, who qualifies as a professional reference, and how you get a reference.

To that end, this article is going to define what a job reference is, and answer other common questions around job references.

What is a Job Reference? 

job reference phone

A job reference is someone that can speak to your professional experience, skills, education, character, and/or any other relevant traits that a hiring company would want to know about your background to help vet you for a potential job offer. 

Often, you will be asked to supply contact information for job references with your initial application, or once you have completed all of your interviews. Typically, the employer will expect somewhere around three relevant references.

Once you’ve completed the interview process, and the employer is considering making you an offer, they 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:

Who Qualifies as a Professional Reference?

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A good professional reference is someone that can speak positively and relevantly about your abilities to the job to which you’re applying.

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. However, that’s not a hard requirement. Ultimately, it’s someone that the company needs to see as credible when it comes to their ability to speak to your aptitude to do the job.

Here are some good examples of potential professional references:

  • A boss from a previous employer
  • A direct report from a previous employer
  • A colleague from a previous employer
  • A teacher or mentor

For a more complete list of potential professional references, check out our who to use as references article.

How Do I Get a Reference?

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Getting a job reference comes down to two simple things: 

  1. Being the caliber of employee that people would want to be a reference for
  2. Making the ask

The starting point for getting a reference is being a good employee and colleague that people would want to speak positively about on a reference call.

If you’re someone that is flaky at work, that is difficult to work with, or that simply doesn’t get results, then you’re going to have a hard time finding someone that would be willing to speak positively about you on a reference call. 

On the other hand, if you’re easy to work with and people like you as a colleague, then you’ll have no trouble finding someone that will want to help you get another job.

Assuming that you have people that are willing to be your reference, then you simply need to need to make the ask of them.

You can approach making the ask in one of two ways:

  1. Making a general ask if they’re willing to be a reference for you moving forward
  2. Reaching out on a case by case basis when you list them as a reference on job applications

In general, I do recommend that you ask your references before listing them to ensure that they’re comfortable speaking about you as a job reference.

The reason is that it is possible for a bad reference to cost you a job, so you want to be confident that your references will speak positively about you (and that they’ll actually respond to the reference call).

Do Jobs Actually Call References?

what is the purpose of references

In general, yes, if an employer asks for your references, you they will call them.

While it’s not true 100% of the time, if an employer is taking the time to collect your references, you should expect for them to call them.


Hopefully, this article has been helpful to you in answering the question “what is a job reference.”

References are an important part of the job search process and getting them right goes a long way to helping you get the job that you want.

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 writes to share content, tools, and resources to help people discover and thrive in their own best fit work.

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