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What are Professional References?

Instructor: Jessica Keys
At some stage in your job search, chances are good that you will encounter a request for a list of professional references. In this article, you'll learn what a professional reference is (and isn't) and get some useful tips on how to choose them wisely.

Professional vs. Personal References

When getting together a list of references, it's important to pay attention to the wording of any job opening; is the prospective employer asking for a professional reference or a personal reference? There are important distinctions between these two types.

Professional

When a prospective employer asks you for professional references, they want a testimonial from somebody who has worked with you directly and would know how you perform on the job, particularly in areas like punctuality and diligence. Some people you might consider for a professional reference include:

  • A former boss, manager or supervisor
  • A (close) co-worker
  • A business partner
  • A client
  • A professional mentor
  • Fellow volunteers

If you have recently graduated, or if it's appropriate for the type of job you're applying to, you could consider using a former teacher, professor or activity advisor if they worked with you closely and can provide a good account of your work.

Personal

On the other hand, a personal reference is more of a character reference. These individuals can provide a testimony of who you are as a person - including your general traits, skills, strong points and weaknesses. These traits may or may not be work-related. Potential personal references can include your best pal, religious leader, next-door neighbor, scoutmaster or your social media friends.

Choosing References with Care

Bear in mind that the kind of person who can deliver a personal reference may not necessarily be appropriate for a professional reference, and vice versa. Of course, there are always exceptions. Your next-door neighbor could be a former employer (even for things like babysitting or household help), or perhaps you count some of your professional clients among your social media followers.

When choosing who to ask for professional references, the important thing is to be mindful of the job at hand:

  • Which of your experiences will be the most relevant for the hiring manager?
  • Where have you found the most professional success and who can best attest to that?
  • Who knows your work best and can give the strongest testimony?

Additionally, prestige is not as important as the quality and context of your experience. Listing your corporate president as a reference might look great, but if your only contact was when you dropped a piece of cake on her foot at the Christmas party, she may not be able to provide a very good opinion on your employability.

A Note on Employment History

You may have heard that there are laws limiting what your references can tell a hiring manager. For example, if you were fired, your ex-boss is legally prohibited from saying so or from giving any reason for your termination. This is not true. While some companies do have such policies in place (mostly as a means of protecting against defamation lawsuits), there are no laws that prevent this from happening.

If you were fired, you have every right not to choose that boss for a professional reference, but be prepared to explain any past terminations honestly.

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