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What References to Include on Your Resume

March 10, 2017

It’s wise to chose someone who you know in either a professional or educational manner. Your personal friends will be able to attest to the quality of your character, but will not be able to provide a lot of insight into your experiences and accomplishments in your career.

Steve at Caterpillar offered some advice on who might be your most effective candidate for a reference, “The most effective references are ones who can speak directly to your performance. These are typically past or current supervisors or teachers, and to a lesser degree, co-workers. Someone who is a friend, for example, who has not actually observed you in a formal work or school environment, will not be effective or considered relevant by the potential employer, as they can speak to your character, but not your performance. It is also important that you provide a 'heads-up' to your references that you are using them. This way they will not be caught off guard and will be more prepared to speak about you in a positive light.” 1

Who else, besides a supervisor, can be a reference?

Unfortunately we don’t always work for the best people. If you and your supervisor didn’t see eye to eye professionally, they may not be the best choice for a reference. The case may also be that they simply did not know you and your accomplishments well enough to speak about them.

Either way, leverage your other resources by following the advice from Gigi at ADP: “You want the people who will make the strongest recommendations for you. Former supervisors do not have to be references, especially if they did not know all your accomplishments or you fear they will not have glowing things to say about you. Sometimes former co-workers, or supervisors in other departments who know your work, make the best choices. Again, the key is people who know your strengths and abilities and who will say positive things about you.

"Overall, you ideally want about three to five references – people who can speak highly of your accomplishments, work ethic, skills, education, performance, etc. College students and recent grads have a little more flexibility, but ideally you should have several references from internships or volunteer work in addition to professors and personal references. Avoid listing family members; clergy or friends are okay for personal references. Former coaches, vendors, customers, and business acquaintances are also acceptable.” 2

Consider who else you’ve shared a work environment with and whether or not there may be someone who would be able to speak in detail about projects you’ve worked on and the accomplishments you’ve made. Perhaps a former coworker or another department’s supervisor may be well versed in your work. If you’ve had a great business relationship with a former customer, they would be an excellent choice for a reference. It’s important to select a reference who can speak in detail about who you are professionally.

Each reference might be able to highlight a different aspect of your strengths. Perhaps you’re asked to provide three references, you may consider the following:

  • A coach, professor, or leader of an academic club you may be involved in who is familiar with your ambition and drive.
  • A former coworker who can attest to your strong communication and teamwork skills
  • Your direct or indirect supervisor who is familiar with your accomplishments and ability to complete projects

Deciding on the right references can be a lot of pressure. It could potentially be the deciding factor for a hiring manager when considering whether to hire you. Aim to choose a diverse group of references from your background who can each highlight your best skills. Make sure that these people are also personable, knowledgeable of your work repertoire, and are aware to make themselves available when the phone rings. Following these steps will make for a solid application.


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