Do You Know Reference Ettiquette?

References are a great way to highlight your skills and abilities to a potential employer. Typically, the information that is gleaned from a reference might not get you a job by itself, but it may be the difference maker between yourself and another candidate. From my experience, some students may not always understand how to set themselves up for future references.  I would like to share with you some simple tips to make sure that you get good references for your future job or internship.

The best references come from relationships

References are earned not owed.

No matter the title that an individual has, the best recommendations come from people who have had a chance to observe your work. I recently was a member of a panel discussion at my university and something that a faculty member said stuck with me. He said “My references are golden to me” and he then went on to clarify that he typically gives references to students who do high quality work and who have made a point to get to know him.

Do you think that is fair or unfair?

It is important to remember that when someone acts as a reference to you, they are essentially putting their reputation on the line for you. Most professionals have put in years and years of hard work to achieve their status and they may not feel comfortable in serving as a reference to someone they don’t know well.

Take the time to get to know these contacts by:

  • Attending office hours for your professors to start to develop a relationship with them
  • Getting to know your professional colleagues through social events or even going to get coffee or lunch together
  • Offering your support or assistance when needed

Put your references in position to succeed

The value of your reference is highly influenced by the information that you provide.

When an employer calls your references, they will be expecting to hear about your positive attributes as they relate to the job you applied for. No doubt the employer has an interest in you as a candidate if they call your references.

One of the first steps to putting your reference in position to succeed is to ensure that you have both agreed that they will serve as your reference. In addition, you want to make sure that they have a sense of when employers may be calling them. Just this semester, I had an employer call me regarding an old co-worker that I had worked with. Since my old co-worker had taken the time to send me her updated resume, ask me in advance to use my name as a reference, and tell me some details about the positions she was applying for-I was able to help the employer who called understand her specific fit within the organization.

Here are a few ways to help your references help you:

  • Keep them updated on the types of positions that you are applying for
  • Let them know when you are applying to jobs so they can be prepared
  • Send an updated resume so that they can speak to your strengths clearly

Practice courtesy with your references

Your references have done you a favor, so make sure to treat them well.

I have served as a reference and I have always appreciated it when the people I served as a reference to acknowledged the efforts that I put forth. Appreciation can be shown in many ways, either through gestures or other means.

One of the first ways to show your appreciation is simply through how you ask your references to support you. Remember that it is a privilege and not a requirement. No matter the situation, no one is required to serve as a reference to you.

Here are some other ways to be courteous with your references:

  • Ask for references at least a month in advance
  • Try to ask for letters of reccomendation from professors earlier in the semester, rather than later when numerous students will be asking
  • Follow up with updates on your status, especially if you get a job or internship
  • Send a thank you note and inquire if you can help your reference in some way

Final tips for references:

  • References from your supervisor or someone who you managed yourself are typically viewed as the most valuable by a prospective employer
  • When you leave a job or internship, ask your supervisor for a reference
  • Utilize tools like LinkedIn to showcase your references
  • Your reference is someone who wants to see you succeed, make sure to continue to nurture the relationship over time


Joe is a career counselor at San Jose State University. His areas of specialization include: experiential education, resume development, interview preparation, job search strategy, and assessment inventories. In his role, he also serves as the community manager for the Career Center’s social media outlets. Connect with Joe on Twitter or follow samplings of his work via Career Action Now and The SJSU Career Center blog.

Related posts:

  1. Reference Lists: The Other Marketing Tool
  2. Your References Are More Important Than You Think

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