At some point in your career, someone is likely to ask you to be a job reference.

Executive Brief

  • What to know about being a good job reference:
  • Only agree if you know the person’s work directly
  • Tell a story that showcases the applicant’s skills
  • Ask for the job description to tailor your response

  • References play a key role in the hiring process. Employers are looking to confirm a candidate’s employment, skill set and character. It’s usually one of the final hurdles before a job offer.

    But before agreeing to serve as a job reference for someone, there are a few things to consider.

    Decide whether to say yes

    The first thing you should ask yourself is: Would you actually recommend this person?

    “Don’t risk your own reputation by vouching for someone you don’t truly believe in and if you don’t have a good feel for how this person performs,” said Amanda Augustine, career expert at TopResume.

    Consider how well you know the person’s work, how frequently you have worked directly with this person and whether you can give specific and helpful feedback to a hiring manager.

    “Don’t say yes to giving a reference unless you have something uniquely interesting to say about that person,” advised Ian Siegel, CEO of ZipRecruiter.

    And the higher you move up the career ladder, the more selective you should be, according to Siegel. “The more senior you become, the less references you should give. The weight of your reputation matters more.”

    If you don’t feel qualified or comfortable, don’t feel like you have to give a lot of detail on why.

    Try saying something like: I don’t know you well enough to provide a strong reference, or, I wish I could help, but I don’t think I would be the best person, suggested Augustine. “I would avoid going any deeper than that,” she said.

    You should also check your company’s policy about giving professional references. Some companies restrict what information can be provided.

    Find out more about the job

    Should you agree to serve as a reference, ask the applicant for details about the position so you can tailor your responses to meet the job requirements.

    For instance, if you know the job is for a project manager, you will likely focus more on those skills and experience.

    Also request an updated resume so you can confirm employment dates and jog your memory of the person’s responsibilities.

    “Make sure to tell the person to warn you if someone is going to reach out,” said Augustine.

    Set expectations

    While you don’t have to divulge every detail you plan to say about the reference, it’s helpful to provide a sense of what you do plan to focus on.

    For instance, Augustine suggested saying something like: I don’t know about your coding skills, but I can speak to your influence on company culture and how positive you are.

    This way the applicant can evaluate whether they want to have you act as a reference.

    Give examples

    The most effective references are specific and provide examples of someone’s work and character.

    “Tell a story,” said Siegel. “That way the hiring manager has something specific and concrete that helps them remember the person and helps the candidate stand out.”

    It could be as simple as telling how the applicant came up with new ideas and executed them.

    Writing your recommendation

    Attaching reference letters to a job application or resume rarely happens, but written recommendations can be still asked for in academia, on LinkedIn and some other professional settings.

    “You are contributing to their personal marketing campaign about their skills and qualifications for an employer,” said Augustine. “Tailor it to whatever they are looking for. If they held numerous roles and are specifically targeting one type now, hone in on that.”

    She suggested starting off with how you know the person, your impression of their work and an example of something they did to exhibit the skills they are trying to promote.

    Think of a request for a LinkedIn recommendation as the “CliffsNotes version” of what you would tell a hiring manager on the phone, said Augustine. Establish how you know the person and give a quick summary of your experience working with them.

    Say something like: I worked with [name] on this project and really got to see their project management skills in action and anyone looking to hire for this role, [name] would be an asset, recommended Augustine.

    “You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty details,” she said. “This is much more of a top line and overview summary.”