Getting your resume just right is crucial in today's job search. That means optimizing every single detail, including how (and whether) to include references on your resume.
Including a few character references on your resume used to be standard practice, but is this still the right move in today's job market?
If you're wondering how to add references to resume sections, below you'll learn when to include them, what kinds of references to use, how to format them, and more—all to help you craft a better resume.
3 key takeaways
- The importance of professional references
- Listing references on a resume
- Managing your references with the free Teal Contacts Tracker
Importance of professional references in career growth and hiring
References are the people who can best vouch for your professional success and experience.
But they aren't just an endorsement.
References are also a catalyst for career growth and success—offering a tangible record of your capabilities and a glimpse into your character, work ethic, and potential cultural fit. Having the right references can open doors to new opportunities.
For hiring managers, references validate the claims you've made in your resume and during the interview process. They provide an external perspective and give weight to the achievements and skills you've highlighted.
The role of references in a resume
Traditionally, resume references were considered an important part of the application process. However, modern hiring practices indicate that it's no longer relevant (or even acceptable) to list references on a resume.
Why resume references are often irrelevant
A hiring manager or recruiter usually won't take the time to contact your references until later in the hiring process—after they've already interviewed you.
Well, if the rest of your resume doesn't align with what they're looking for or the hiring manager decides during the interview that you're not a good fit, then references are irrelevant.
Changes in modern resume formats
Resume best practices indicate if you have ten years or less of professional experience, your resume should only be around one page—two pages at most. And the content of your resume should showcase the top 10% of your experience that's relevant to the role you're applying for.
This means your resume real estate is precious.
You have limited space to stand out and make an impression with that top 10%. Every detail of your resume should be strategically optimized for that purpose. Including references is not only irrelevant to highlighting the most important and pertinent parts of your experience, but it also just takes up unnecessary space.
Simply put? You shouldn't include references on a resume. (And the same guideline applies to your cover letter, too!)
Understanding when to include resume references
While excluding resume references is the general rule, there might be some very specific circumstances where including a resume reference list is acceptable or required.
For example, if the job description asks you to provide references, then you should.
Some industries or jobs—think agencies or therapists—also request client testimonials or professional references during the initial application process.
Providing a resume references section or a separate references page is acceptable in these rare instances.
Types of references
Job references (or character references) usually fit into three categories. Sometimes, an employer will ask for specific types; in others, you'll have to decide what makes the most sense.
Professional resume references are people in your professional network. They could be coworkers, managers, industry peers, or someone you often go to for career advice or guidance, like a mentor.
A good professional reference will know:
- You (who you are, your basic professional temperament)
- Your capabilities (the jobs and skills you've demonstrated)
- Your value (why the recruiter should hire you)
Choose professional references who know you well and can speak to the work you'll be doing in the new position.
Often, this would be your direct manager, a former manager at a former employer, a career coach, or a former colleague who has worked closely with you. Anyone in your professional network who can vouch for your job performance and work experience to a potential employer could be a good choice.
But, be mindful that professional references can be challenging to navigate.
If you don't want your current employer to know you're looking elsewhere, you might not be able to choose your direct supervisor.
If you don't see any obvious choices, consider those who can only speak positively to your relevant professional skills, even if they've seen those skills in a different context.
Academic resume references are those who know you from an educational setting. It could be a high school guidance counselor, a college professor, or even a thesis advisor.
Typically, you'll need to provide an academic reference for entry-level jobs where the employer doesn't expect applicants to have much professional experience. (These also tend to show up in academic job listings.)
Choosing an academic reference is usually straightforward:
Select someone from your academic career who knows you and your educational background well. You also want to select someone from whom you earned your highest academic credential, if possible.
A personal reference is any other person who knows you but doesn't fall into the professional or academic categories.
Some jobs (such as those in the government or military) want to hear from people who've known you for a long time. People like friends you grew up with (or even their parents). In these cases, the prospective employer will probably give specific instructions.
If it's up to you to choose a personal reference, think through the people who know you personally. If you can list someone with some social standing or high degree of trust (like a well-known businessperson, civil servant, or community leader), doing so might be a good strategy.
Managing your references
No matter the type of references you choose, you'll need an effective way to keep track of them.
Use Teal's Contacts Tracker to organize your references and other contacts so you can easily access this information when needed.
You can even keep track of details like the last time you contacted them and automatically assign dates to follow up—a critical part of ensuring the references you choose are effective.
How to request a reference
Figuring out who to use as a reference is tricky enough; now, you need to ask them whether they are willing to be a reference.
Yes, requesting references can feel awkward—but a small amount of discomfort now is better than a lot later.
Ask permission, not forgiveness
Reach out to a prospective reference before listing them anywhere, and make sure they are willing to serve in this way.
Verify contact information
The contact information you have for your reference might be too personal (e.g., email@example.com) or too professional (e.g., a business-only phone extension).
Asking your reference what contact information they want to be included is courteous (and it'll help get a faster response when prospective employers reach out to them).
Make sure you're asking people who truly know you well. Your CEO might seem like a prestigious reference, but if you've only spoken once, two years ago, they might not be a good reference (or a willing one!).
Maintain family boundaries
Unless your mother or father is the CEO, family members don't belong on your reference list.
If in doubt, don't
If you're unsure how a person feels about you, don't reach out.
You want to be sure the people you list as references will actually say good things about you, not bring up that argument you had last February!
Formatting references on a resume
Here are some resume references examples of how listing professional references might look.
References for Belle Deshowdilon
Madi Smith (preferred contact)
- Former CEO and Chair, TechWiz
- Madi coached and mentored me in my early career while I worked at her firm.
- Chief Marketing Officer, SavTech
- Direct Supervisor
- Ryan oversaw the marketing department during my time at SavTech.
Note: If you're including more than one reference, be sure to format each of them exactly the same way.
Best Practices for references
Don't use phrases like "reference available upon request"
While it might have a formal or professional ring, this phrase isn't useful.
Typically, including "reference available upon request" is just as unnecessary as including the references themselves. Both take up valuable space.
If a prospective employer makes it clear they want references early on, give them references. Don't just tell them you could provide that information.
Maintain relationships with your reference
It's vital to maintain relationships with anyone you're using as a reference—and to let them know you've put their contact information on a job application.
Put yourself in the reference's shoes for a minute.
Imagine you're a high-powered executive, senior manager, or academic advisor. Your cell phone rings, and you don't recognize the number.
How often are you picking up that call?
Instead, you let it go to voicemail. Later, you check the voicemail and find out that someone at a company name you've never heard of is asking you for a reference for someone else you hardly remember. It's been years since you were in contact with the candidate.
How strong of a reference would you give—or would you even call the recruiter back?
Here's the point: Your reference is only valuable if they give a good impression of you. If they don't respond to the recruiter or sound baffled, then the reference is doing more damage than if you hadn't given one at all.
Limit references to 3-5 contacts
How many references do you need? No recruiter wants to get hit with a list of references that rivals the company directory in length. And the more you include, the harder it will be to keep those relationships current.
Consider three references to be the minimum number of references. Usually, somewhere around three to five separate references is an ideal number.
Use a dedicated resume reference page
If you're including references with your resume (because the job posting explicitly calls for them), make them stand out by placing them on a dedicated separate document or reference sheet.
This way, if your second page gets lost or overlooked, you'll still be giving the recruiter everything essential. When they ask about the missing references, you can point out the second page.
Keeping your references on a separate page also makes it easier for people to handle and share your resume. If they don't care about references, they can simply ignore them.
Keep track of references and streamline your job search
Gathering the right set of professional references is an important step in the job search journey.
Storing their contact information in one easy-to-access location like the Teal Contacts Tracker is convenient and efficient because it ensures that you're organized, reduces the risk of misplacing crucial details, and allows quick retrieval when tailoring applications or responding to potential employers.
This centralized approach can expedite the hiring process (and leave a positive impression on hiring managers!).
And just like an organized reference system can elevate your professional image and streamline the application process, a well-crafted resume is also a key piece in showcasing your expertise and fit for a role.
Teal is an end-to-end career growth platform with a built-in AI Resume Builder and Job Application Tracker so you can create a resume that stands out from the rest—one you can easily tailor to custom-fit—every time you hit apply.
Ready to streamline your professional contacts and get one step closer to that dream job? Sign up for your free Teal account today.