5 Job Reference Mistakes You Should Never Make

If you’re one of the many Americans looking for a job, then you are probably already in the middle of a tough job search. Properly displaying appropriate skills, acing the interview, and negotiating the best offer are necessary, but don’t neglect the reference request or section on an application. Having a reference who is willing to help sell your ability to do a good job is a must. If you choose the wrong reference, or the person isn’t careful about what they say, you may end up being passed over for a job that is otherwise a good fit. If you are asked by a potential employer to provide a reference letter (or you decide to include one), it is also important to choose wisely, because a strong letter will act as an endorsement for you. Here are five reference mistakes to avoid.

1. Listing someone as a reference without asking first

call for job reference

Making a job reference call | iStock.com

Don’t assume that just because you feel fondly about a co-worker or boss they feel the same way about you. It’s necessary to ask first before listing someone as a reference. If you don’t ask, there’s a chance the person might give a bad reference. Even if they want to give a great reference, they might get caught off-guard if they are not expecting a call. You also risk the person not knowing enough about you, or they may have limited knowledge about your abilities.

If you are unsure how to ask for a reference, you can use email if you like. However, asking in person can help. If you are nervous, practice what you want to say ahead of time. Also, be sure to thank references after they initially agree to help you, and again if you know they received a call or wrote a letter.

2. Asking the wrong person


Bad boss | 20th Century Fox

While a supervisor who has glowing things to say about you might sound ideal, many companies have specific policies that prevent supervisors from sharing references. Also, if you left your job on bad terms, you probably shouldn’t list anyone from that company unless you specifically know they will represent you in a positive light.

Professional references are usually best, and if you haven’t held a job before, or you feel uncomfortable asking any co-workers, you can also list a supervisor from your experience volunteering, or even from college if you have no other options. Personal references are usually not the best choice unless the company requests one, but if you have no one else to list, then make sure the personal reference you list at least knows you in a way that aligns with your potential jobs.

3. Forgetting to properly share your desired image

Source: Paramount Pictures

Really really good looking people | Paramount Pictures

People may not see you the same way you see yourself. If the people you ask to be references for you are open to it, be sure to share the skills and experience that you hope they will help get across to potential employers. Also, be sure that your references are willing, and agree, with the image you want to sell. It can help to share your resume and a list of the skills or experience you want them to highlight. Also, if there is anything that they may potentially share that you don’t want them to, be sure to tell them that as well. You can also use a reference verification company if you want to know what your references might say ahead of time.

4. Not checking in

An unidentified businessman uses his cell phone May 22, 2002 in London, England

Businessman checking in with phone call | Hugo Philpott/Getty Images

If someone agrees to be your reference, then they will expect to get phone calls or emails about you. Still, it can help to regularly check in with them during your job search. That way you will know if a company is pursuing you, and you also will build a relationship with your reference. It’s a good idea to keep up a friendly relationship even if you plan to stay in your job for a while; letting the relationship lapse will make it less likely that the reference will be willing, or able, to provide a positive reference in the future.

It’s also important to check in to be sure that your reference still has the same contact information, and to ask if they are willing to continue to act as a reference. If they said yes two years ago and you haven’t spoken since, then they may not be willing to give a reference any longer.

5. Underestimating the importance of a reference letter

work, office setting

Businessman at work | Source: iStock

You need to think as carefully about who you ask for your reference letter as you do for your references. A strong reference letter will provide an endorsement, showcase your qualifications, and also highlight your personal qualities.

While an employer will read your resume and cover letter, they may move from interested in you to offering you an interview based on what someone else says about you. The letter shouldn’t be too personal (for example, you don’t want your reference to overshare awkward stories), but you do want the writer to share your best qualities, and the letter shouldn’t be so dry that the reader learns nothing about you. It is a bit tricky, because you don’t want to be too controlling of your reference or you will appear ungrateful. If possible, keep it casual, and simply say thank you for agreeing to write the letter, and ask if they mind highlighting a few specific things.

It’s important to find the right person to write your reference letter, or act as a reference for you. It is equally important to continue a relationship with your references, to thank them for their help, and to be sure that they share information that you want to be shared.

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