Who to Use As References: 8 Examples & Who to Avoid


who to use as references

Whether you’re applying for your first job, a promotion, or an executive level role, references are an important part of the job search process.

They provide a critical third-party source of information about your ability to do a job and you should expect that companies that have quality hiring practices will lean upon them for information about you.

To that end, this article unpacks what makes a good reference, who to use as references, people to avoid as references, and answers common questions around references.

What Makes a Good Job Reference?

A good reference is someone that can speak positively and relevantly about your abilities to the job to which you’re applying. Additionally, a quality reference is somebody that the company will view as a credible source of information about your ability to do the job.

Good Examples of Reference

what happens after reference check

Based upon the definition above, when thinking about who to use as references, any of the below types of people could serve as good examples of references.

Note that a good rule of thumb is that you should have three to five relevant references ready for a job to which you’re applying.

Former Bosses

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.

Former Colleagues

people at work

Outside of people you worked for, 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.

Former Direct Reports

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.

Teachers or Mentors

signs your boss cares about you

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, even if they haven’t worked with you directly recently.

Someone You Volunteered For

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 could be a fantastic reference.

Someone You Volunteered With


Building on the previous point about volunteering, if you volunteered as a part of a team, you’ll have a variety of volunteer colleagues that could speak to the work that you did as a part of that role. If the volunteer work was relevant to the position to which you’re applying, those folks could serve as great potential references.

Former Clients

For people that work directly with clients, and are applying for client facing roles, then former clients can be some of the best potential references to pull from. Those are people that your business directly serves that can speak to how you helped them in your role.

Other Stakeholders of Your Work

people at work

Outside of the examples listed above, there may be other people that were interested in or benefited from your work. For example, let’s say that the leader of your department was a big fan of yours and the work that you did as a part of his or her team. Even though that person wasn’t your direct manager, they could absolutely be someone that could serve as a good reference for you.

Bad Examples of References

After reviewing the list of people that could serve as good potential references, it’s also important to review people that would be important to avoid as potential references.

Friends, Family, or Other Personal References


In general, it’s best to avoid using people with whom your relationship is primarily personal or friendly as references.

The reason is that the potential employer may not view them as credible sources of information about your ability to do a job.

Just because someone likes you personally, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re equipped to do whatever job it is that you’re applying for. 

Note that an exception here could be if a company is looking for a specific type of reference known as a character reference. That type of reference is more focused on your personal attributes and traits, rather than just your work background, so a personal connection could be more appropriate there.

Those Where You’re Not Confident What They’ll Say

reference check call

References are really important sources of information is the job candidate vetting process. And a bad reference can certainly cost you a job.

And with that being the case, it’s important to try and identify references where you have a high level of confidence that they’ll speak highly about your specific abilities relative to the role. 

If you have someone that you think enjoyed working with you, but that you’re not sure what they’ll say in a reference, it would be best to find someone else where you feel a higher level of confidence about how their speak to your abilities to do a job.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a Reference Be a Friend?

not be my references

In general, it’s best to avoid having a reference be a friend. The reason is because a company is likely to question the credibility of a friend to speak to your ability to do a job.

Can a Reference Be a Family Member?

Family members should be avoided as references. Even more so than other types of personal references, family members will be motivated to speak about your abilities in the most positive possible light and the accuracy and credibility of their reference may be viewed with suspicion.

Can a Current Coworker or Colleague Be a Reference?

business meeting

A current coworker or colleague could be a reference if you’re comfortable with them knowing that you’re interviewing for other positions. 

However, in most cases, you generally don’t want your current employer to know that you’re out looking for jobs, so tapping a current coworker or colleague wouldn’t be a wise move. 

If you’re in a unique situation where you’re comfortable with your job search being somewhat public knowledge, then a current coworker could be a very good choice.


Identifying who to use as references is critical for getting a job offer. And if you select the right reference, you could find yourself with a job offer one – three business days after the reference checks have been completed

So good luck in your search and in selecting the right references!

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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