Ace the Reference Check

Mitchell_Ace the reference check November 22, 2021 By: Barbara Mitchell

Providing references as part of your job search may seem daunting, but with a well-thought-out strategy, you’re sure to have a successful outcome.

Q: I know providing references is an important part of the job-search process, but I’d like some guidance on whom I should include as references. How many do I need, and how far back is acceptable?

A: You’re right—references are important, and before you begin a serious job search, you should carefully consider whom to include on your reference list.

I don’t recommend you put references on your resume, but you may be asked to list them on an application. There is no set number that you need, and some organizations are very specific as to whom they want to contact.

Before you leave any job, line up references. Some organizations want at least one of your references to be a peer and one to be someone you managed. Of course, you will select coworkers who you know will say positive things about you and your skills and contributions. If you have already left the organization, it is a really good idea to ask your immediate manager to serve as a reference. She is the one who really matters to you lining up your next job

Make sure your references all aren’t peers or former employees—you need at least one past manager on your list.

However, if you are job hunting and don’t want your current organization to know you’re looking, then you need to reach back to a previous manager who can speak to your performance. It doesn’t hurt to have several past managers agree to serve as references.

How many do you need? I think five to six is a good number. Make sure they all aren’t peers or former employees—you need at least one past manager on your list.

Rarely will you be asked for a personal reference, but if you are, ask a family friend or teacher or someone who knows your character.

I’m also hearing that some organizations are using services to check references and that some of them do it all online and before a candidate is even interviewed. These services ask for more references than organizations typically do. Most organizations, however, check the references of the top one or two candidates at the end of the process.

Here’s a tip for when an organization you’re interviewing with asks you for a reference—alert the reference that they will probably be contacted. Tell them about the job and what you’d like them to emphasize about your skill set. That will make the reference more valuable and increase your chances of getting hired.

Barbara Mitchell

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR, The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, and the newest, The Conflict Resolution Phrase Book. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer? Send it to