References are an extremely important part of our professional life. Not only do we need to have good references when we're job seeking, but we also want to know how to give good references so that we can keep our reputation in check.


I was recently contacted by a friend who received an unexpected call regarding a reference. A company called her out of the blue and asked for a reference for a potential employee. This person was my friend's former co-worker from a few years ago. The co-worker has had a couple of jobs since then.

My friend was never asked by this individual to be a reference, and felt that deep down she really didn't have good things to say about them. She didn't know what to do.

I hear stories like this all the time. This is somebody who didn't manage their references, and put somebody else in a very awkward spot. You do not want to do this.

Although, I know that some people don't even realize that they are putting people in an awkward spot in these situations. So, I want to walk you through the steps that it takes for you to ask for and maintain good references:

1. Always Have References Ready To Go

Professional man asking for references

First, it doesn't matter if you're looking for work right now or not. All of us should have references that are good to go at any time. You never know when an opportunity is going to fall in your lap. Every job is temporary, and you just never know.

Set aside some time to think about the people you've worked with, both managers and co-workers. Specifically, you should think about people who you admire and respect. Reach out to them—not by email—but by phone, and ask if they would mind being your reference.

It's very important that you say to them that you are asking if they would be a reference because you admire them. Communicate to them that there's no pressure if they're not comfortable being referenced, and that you understand, but you are actively looking to put together a good set of references made up of people who you look up to.

That's all you need to do—ask. But, you also need to understand that not everybody is going to want to give references. In fact, some companies have very strict policies on whether or not a current employee can give any references out at all.

The person you ask may check and see if there is a reference policy at their organization, and if they can in fact give a reference. If they can, that's great, and you'll be able to move forward. Still, you need to understand if somebody says no, because their company may not allow it.

There are a lot of these policies out there, and this will happen. That's why you want to line up quite a few references, because in the event that not everybody can provide one for you, you at least have a good set to draw from.

2. Keep Your References In The Loop

A woman lets her professional reference know how her job search is going

Now, once somebody has agreed to be your reference, it's important that you manage their expectations. You want to keep them in the loop about any developments, and you do not want them blindsided with a phone call from an employer doing a reference check on you.

So if you're actively interviewing right now, and you know somebody might call your reference, send them a quick email saying, "Hey, by the way, you may or may not get a reference check from this company," and give them some information. Tell them who the company is, tell them why you admire the company, why you applied to the company, what job you're applying for and, what skill sets you'll be using. Giving them as much information possible is going to make it so much easier for them to give an informed reference. You want to give them a heads up, and as much notice as you can.

On another note, people wonder whether or not they are "allowed" to tell a reference what they would like to have said about them. The answer is no. It is strictly up to them to say whatever they want.

In the event that they do they do ask the question, "What would you like me to say?" you can give them some examples of your strengths or things that you want to leverage—but don't offer this up. How they choose to talk about you is entirely up to them.

3. Be Grateful

Professional woman thanks her boss for being her reference

Finally, be grateful for these references. You want to thank them every time they are contacted. Thank them, as few ever get a job as a direct result of these references. Make sure you send a thank you note. Better still, maybe even get them a very inexpensive gift of appreciation. This is not buying the reference, but acknowledging how fabulous the person is.

And, of course, offer to be a reference for them in return. Make sure you remind them that you would always be happy to be a reference for them as well.

How To Give References

Professional man is giving a reference for his colleague

Now, on the flip side, let's talk about giving references. First, if you're actively employed, proactively check the policy that your company has on giving references. Coming from the world of HR and recruiting, I know that companies put this in place as a result of slander lawsuits.

For example, if you were to give a reference, and somebody decided that it was your reference that didn't get them the job, they could sue the company. This is why so many companies don't allow employees to give references—too many have been burned.

If your company does not have that policy, I would still strongly advise you to only agree to be references for people who you feel you can talk about in a positive manner.

The good news is that, even if you didn't love all of the ways in which the individual performed, 99% of the time there will be one or two things that were good about them. Speak to those things, and focus on their skill sets that you can speak to.

If you are asked a question that you can't answer, either because you don't have the information or because you don't feel like your answer would be a good one, simply say, "I can't speak to that—I don't have enough information about and/or experience with the person to speak to that." Then, pivot back to the things that you can talk about.

If you don't feel that you are in a position to talk about a certain aspect of the person, focus on what you can talk about. This is the simple and professional way to give a reference. It's all about being consistent.

Finally, if you give a reference, make sure you let that person know after the fact. In general, they're wondering where they're at in the process, so shoot off a quick email and say, "Hey, FYI, gave a reference for you today—I spoke to so-and-so, and this is what I spoke about. These are the areas that I emphasized…" This is very valuable and helpful, and remember that these people could be references for you down the line.

Again, every job is temporary—you just do not know when you might need a reference. Being a good reference, nurturing your references, and doing all of these things well will help you put your best professional foot forward in new ways.


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