How to Manage Your Professional References


Having professional references to share with a potential employer is imperative. If you believe that you will ever need or want another job, pursuing and maintaining professional references is not optional.

It’s true that three names and three numbers are usually all that is expected when it comes to references; however, there is much to consider when planning this list of professional contacts.

In this blog, we will address 7 important issues: the importance of references, problems encountered when checking references, who to list as references, contact information for your chosen references, maintaining contact with your references, references and companies no longer reachable, shocking references and the problem with listing bad references on a job application.


Why are references important to potential employers?

Employers want to know in advance the type of worker they are about to hire, so they hope to verify what you've told them and other things which they already believe to be true about you. They want to know how pleased your former employers were with the work that you did and insights about various aspects of the job such as those listed below.

excellent references
  • Dates of employment
  • Position title
  • Job responsibilities
  • Quality of performance
  • Quality of work relationships
  • Personal qualities
  • Dependability and Attendance
  • Strengths and Weaknesses
  • Discipline and Violent Conduct issue(s)
  • Reason for leaving and Rehire status

As you can see, reference calls may require a somewhat lengthy conversation. Sometimes references will simply verify past employment or give a generic response to the questions asked, but most of the time, the reference will engage in a pleasant, sometimes lively, conversation, especially if the employee was well-liked. This is certainly preferable to the person seeking to hire a new employee.

REMEMBER: Although past employment verification is an acceptable reference, it does not reveal much of what a potential employer really needs to know. Employers want to speak with references who remember you and will gladly share their thoughts about you and your work.

So, time is spent making calls to people whom you claim know you well enough to give you a positive reference. Yet I will insert this truth here. Many, many employers are not simply seeking a positive reference but an outstanding, exceptional reference. They want the best, and who can blame them with the ever-increasing need for a strong work ethic and integrity in the workplace. Is this you? And will the names you’ve listed as references back you up on this?

finding quality employees

My last point has to do with company policy. Truthfully, some businesses fail to check any references on their employees. Some may check 1 or 2. Yet others may not be allowed to hire an individual unless 3 solid references are obtained on the front end. Know that if your references are bad, weak or unable to be reached, you may lose out on a good job opportunity.


contact references by phone

There are a variety of issues which can arise when Hiring Managers begin checking the references of potential new hires. It’s true that many times a person’s references are easily checked and verified. However, there are also times when the process is unnecessarily complicated by one thing or another.

  • Sometimes the number provided is a wrong number or has been disconnected.
  • Many times, the person being called will not answer the phone, so leaving a message is required. Unfortunately, it is surprising how often the voice mail box of a reference will either be full or not set up yet.
  • When a message is left, sometimes the person returns the call promptly. However, sometimes it requires leaving several messages. Then there are times when a message is never returned, so a connection is never made. Without your intervention, the reference is left unchecked.
  • Occasionally, the person being called is no longer with the company, and neither the HR Manager nor the receptionist can help because they do not recall the names and cannot find files on either the reference or the ex-employee. Frustrating! (Note: Always provide your maiden name to your potential employer, especially if it will be needed in the reference checking process.)
  • The reference may answer but then say that it is not company policy to give a reference, but that they will be glad to forward the call on to their HR Department staff, who may or may not know the ex-employee. Furthermore, they may only verify the candidate's past employment. (Note: Occasionally, an individual who is not allowed to give a professional reference on a former employee MAY be able to offer a personal reference, especially if the two were friends who knew each other reasonably well.)
  • Sometimes the HR file of a candidate whose reference is being checked will be missing or no longer available to the HR Department.
  • Many times, the only reference allowed is a verification of past employment and the dates of that employment. Yet occasionally the HR Manager might answer an additional question or two if asked, such as: Is the person eligible to be rehired? Would you rehire this person if you could? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the company's level of satisfaction with the employee's work?
making a reference call

When your potential employer must jump through hoops in their efforts to obtain 3 references, you have failed to take care of things on your end. That's why it’s best to speak with your references beforehand so they know to expect a call. If the contact numbers you have provided do not result in a reference, it is your job to find other names and numbers.

Do not put your future employer in a challenging and time-consuming situation. Know that the list of names and numbers you have provided will result in successful reference checks.


Some job seekers wrongly conclude that their references must be HR or Department Managers. However, the best references will be direct supervisors and/or managers who knew you well and will be able to share first-hand knowledge of your work.

3 fingers being held up

The goal is to have at least 3 professional references. However, if you happen to have more than 3 professional references, list them, but place them in order of call preference. It is not necessary to list more than 2 or 3 personal references.

Professional references for experienced employees should include the following:

  • your immediate supervisor and/or a manager from your most recent place of employment
  • a manager/supervisor from a different company, preferably the next most recent employer
  • a manager/supervisor from a third company (IF the person and the company are still available for contact)

However, it is okay to have 2 references from the same employer, especially if you were employed there for a lengthy time. Three references are also acceptable, but not preferable, unless you worked under several different supervisors.

It is best to include only professional references. In other words, personal references are not preferred. However, if listing three professional references is simply not an option (due to the company closing or the managers being replaced, etc.), then a reference from an ex-co-worker who could at least verify employment or the personal reference of a business associate or friend may be listed. Including the number of years you have known these individuals can be helpful also. 

Professional and personal references for somewhat inexperienced employees or employees who have not worked in many years may include the following:

  • a reference from a school counselor, teacher or professor
  • a member of the clergy
  • a business associate or professional-level family friend who has known you for several years
  • a part-time employer (for jobs such as babysitting, house-sitting, filing, cleaning homes, yard work, etc.)
  • anyone familiar with your capability, maturity, skills, and work ethic

Note: If you use a family member as a reference, it is in your best interest to inform your employer of that fact on the front end. Do not be deceptive about it in any way. If you believe that they will give your potential employer an honest reference, convey that.


Great Idea: Since so many resumes are emailed these days, including hyperlinks to your reference's email addresses and LinkedIn pages may be helpful, especially if the contact numbers are not easily and immediately reachable.

Great Idea: Since so many resumes are emailed these days, including hyperlinks to your reference's email addresses and LinkedIn pages may be helpful, especially if the contact numbers are not easily and immediately reachable.

Keeping contact information current can be a chore, but again, you do not want your future employer to have to “work” for a reference. You are responsible for doing the foot work and being certain that the company has accurate contact information for each of your references.

As stated above, it is wise to contact your references ahead of time and let them know to expect a call from a company so that they can prepare their thoughts about you and not ignore the call when it comes through. This is also a good way to verify that the numbers you have listed are still current.

I’ve also seen candidates include not only phone numbers on their reference page but also links to the email addresses and LinkedIn pages of their references. This is especially helpful when references are out of the office traveling or sick at home because most people check their social media and email whether they are in the office or not.


LinkedIn is one of the best ways to maintain contact with your professional references. If your references are also friends with whom you keep in touch, that link may not be required, but it is still a strong recommendation.

LinkedIn gives you access to your contacts’ most current contact information simply by going online – a major advantage when you have lost close contact with your references and find yourself in the middle of a job search.

LinkedIn gives you access to your contacts’ most current contact information simply by going online – a major advantage when you have lost close contact with your references and find yourself in the middle of a job search.

If you are a professional or aspire to be, establish a LinkedIn page early on (preferably during your high school or college years) and use it to build your professional reputation.

What can you do on LinkedIn? Well, it’s not like Facebook. It’s for business professionals. Like an article in your niche that catches your attention. Support your alma mater or a favorite non-profit group. Publish an article. Share an important piece of news. Keep your job history current.

Build your profile and your connections, especially with your friends, co-workers, bosses, and former classmates. Over time, you never know how the “reputation” you’ve established on this growing social media site will help you land a job, get a new client, make a sale, or even help you earn a promotion.


3 references checked

Sometimes businesses close and are no longer reachable. If you know this to be a fact, the company's old number should not be included on your reference page. Occasionally, larger companies will provide an 800 number for employers to call for an employee reference, but these numbers sometimes have fees and offer little information about ex-employees. Also, many lower and mid-management employees (your ex-supervisors) move on and get new positions with different companies. The level of difficulty in contacting references like these proves why it is best to build and maintain relationships with people and connect with them on social media be it Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

Potential employers want to talk with individuals who can give them reliable information about the person they are seeking to hire. It is your job to maintain a list with the names of at least 3 references who can do this for you.


You would be surprised at how many people provide the names and numbers of references who end up giving them negative or less than wholehearted support during a reference call. While this is actually very helpful to employers, it isn’t helpful to you, the job seeker.

Before you ever leave a company, establish your connections. Talk to those who will be your references. Find out if they truly support you, especially if you were a less than stellar employee. People change. We grow up and mature. Hopefully we learn from our past mistakes. But if your reference believes in you, they will usually express that to potential new employers, even as they convey the truth about any issues you may have had in the past. Keeping in touch with ex-supervisors can be a great way to maintain and even grow those older references.


For example, one of my best personal/professional references was my 6th grade teacher who later became a principal and a dear friend. She passed away recently but served as a mentor and a reference for me for many years and with several jobs. She knew me, my family and I even had the privilege of working with her once when she served as a board member for my employer.

Another time I was seeking a teaching position. My potential employer called a former co-worker of mine and his wife, who had served as principal. Though it had been 20 years prior when I was a young and inexperienced teacher, they always supported and believed in me. Because of their glowing references, I was able to get a job teaching at a private classical Christian school even though I was not necessarily the most qualified candidate.


There are numerous reasons why an ex-employer may give a person a bad reference. There are also myriad explanations behind those bad references. That is why creating a list of your preferred references is a good idea. It can be attached to your resume and cover letter or attached to a job application.

employment application

A job application is a legal document and will always ask for the name of your supervisors with past employers. However, you may not prefer that those people be called as your primary references for one reason or another.

If you already know that your former employer will give you a bad reference or will refuse to give one altogether, ask the employer to contact only the names on your list of references. If an explanation is requested, provide a truthful one. If there is something negative to learn from a reference, the potential employer will want to investigate, but it may be to your advantage if you provide insight on the front end regarding the circumstances under which you left the company. That way, the employer can judge for himself or herself the truth of the situation and listen with greater discernment when checking those references.

Build and maintain professional business relationships whenever possible. Those connections may serve as powerful references and should not be underestimated.

Build and maintain professional business relationships whenever possible. Those connections may serve as powerful references and should not be underestimated.

In conclusion, the importance of your list of references should not be underestimated. Take the time to build positive relationships with your supervisors and HR staff so that when you need their support, you will have it. Honestly, even one truly outstanding reference can be the most influential factor which lands you a job. Some people even request a reference letter to carry with them when they leave a company, so keep that option in mind anytime you are making a job change.

Now that you understand the rationale behind planning your list of references, we hope you will get started today.

For assistance with your job search, contact Brannon Professionals at 662-349-9194. We help people find good jobs in the metro Memphis area, and you will find a list of available positions when you visit us at