Professional References – Who to use as a reference and Who You Can’t?

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Adding professional references is extremely important while applying for a job or creating a profile on a recruitment portal and LinkedIn.

These professional references speak volumes about our contacts, work experience and other affiliations. They provide an interviewer or employer, some insights into your overall personality at work and in social life.

This brings us to the question, why’re professional references so important for a job or career or even personal work?

Here’re some answers.

Importance of Professional References

Providing excellent professional references is extremely important nowadays for two main reasons.

Employee Background Screening

Nowadays, most employers conduct Employee Background Screening (EBS) or pre-recruitment checks to verify the credentials of a prospective candidate.

Of course, no employer does EBS on every job applicant. Instead, the process is done when an organization decides to hire you.

Over 85 percent employers claimed, jobseekers embellish, doctor or provide fake details on their Curriculum Vitae (CV) or resume while applying for a job, a 2019 survey by leading recruitments portal, Monster, found.

And the consequences of lying on a CV or Resume are always disastrous for the jobseeker. Often, EBS is a time-consuming process, depending on what an employer wants to find out about you.

When you provide professional references, you’re actually helping the EBS service provider and your employer to complete your recruitment formalities faster. This translates as getting the job quickly.

You’re also preventing the extreme embarrassment of losing a job for failing an EBS, when you provide excellent professional references.

Once your employer verifies your references and gets details about your character, skills, education and other information necessary for the job, you’re generally safe.

Better Contracts & Work for Freelancers

If you’re a freelancer looking for work online, professional references are also important.

A prospective client visiting a website such as Upwork.com or FlexJobs.com will check your professional references before handing you the work.

Remember, a freelancer works as an independent contractor and doesn’t really report to any single employer.

A freelancer can bid for a contract or specific temporary work. You are free to quote any amount of money to a prospective employer for a particular task.

However, the employer will pay you depending upon your skills and expertise that reflects from your professional references.

In simplest words: the more impressive your professional reference, the more money you earn as a freelancer. 

Of course, references come handy everywhere. But when we’re talking about work or jobs, these are two areas why you’ll require excellent professional references.

It also makes sense to add professional reference on your LinkedIn profile since it helps expand your professional network and helps in getting jobs or recruiting someone else.

Therefore, let’s look at who to use as a professional reference and who you can’t. That would help you create that killer profile to get an excellent job, bag more freelance work or even boost your business.

Guidelines for Using Professional References

Before I write about who to use for professional reference, here’s a word of caution. Make 100 percent sure that your references will speak well about you.

It can be devastating if you might give amazing references but if they claim they don’t know you or are a poor worker or lack skills.

Secondly, let your references know you’re including their names. And alert them before you appear for any interview or apply for a job.

Not many people like getting a call or email or letter from the blue and responding immediately.

The best thing is to stay in touch with your references either through regular phone calls, Facebook or even socializing if possible.

Remember, the entire professional reference world works on your personal relationships. Nobody is going to give you a good reference unless you’re close to them or have been of benefit in some way.

Who You Can Choose as Professional Reference

Now that you know the importance of professional references, let’s explore who you can choose for inclusion on your CV, Resume or job and LinkedIn profile.

Current & Previous Bosses

Your current and previous bosses are the best professional reference you can give while applying for a job or creating an online profile on a recruitment portal or LinkedIn.

There’re several reasons why professional references from your current and previous seniors really matter.

Firstly, it clearly implies that you’ve left a past job in good faith and after completing due exit procedures. Meaning, you have nothing to worry if the future employer contacts your ex-bosses or ex-seniors.

And when you give reference of a current boss or senior, it clearly shows that you’re leaving that employment on good terms.

No future employer will contact your present boss or employer immediately: they know it can jeopardize your current job.

Instead, they’ll wait till you take up the new job before contacting your current employer.

There’re two ways you can use professional reference from your current or past bosses and seniors. The first is an experience certificate from your current employer.

Usually, an experience certificate would also carry some appreciation about your work and contribution to the company. Also, you can ask an experience certificate from a previous employer.

In most cases, employers willingly provide such a certificate.

However, ensure the certificate is signed by your immediate senior or department chief. Because nobody can deny what they have signed for.

The second is by simply including their name, designation and contact details as reference.

However, as I mentioned earlier, alert the person you’re mentioning as a reference before appearing for an interview or adding their name on a CV or Resume.

Current & Previous Colleagues

Before giving references of your current and previous colleagues, I would advise some caution.

You need to ensure they’ll be honest enough to give an accurate and excellent reference if asked by an EBS service provider or someone from your future employer’s offices.

Often, current and previous colleagues conceal their resentment during their regular dealings with you. And there could be an element of envy if you’re finding a much better job.

At the same time, giving professional references of colleagues present and past with whom you jointly did some important projects, can prove very useful.

Indeed, if you’re on excellent terms with some current and previous colleagues, they may go out of their way to give you a superb professional reference that may help you clinch the job or freelance contract.

However, speak with them before you give their names and contact details as a reference and provide some information about the company where you’re applying for a new job.

Officials, Members of Professional Organizations, Guilds

References of officials and members of any profession-related organizations and guilds are also your best bet.

As a member of the organization, they’ll definitely be interested in supporting your career growth.

After all, that is one of the reasons why such professional guilds and organizations exist: to further your field of expertise and lobby for members.

Therefore, with permission, you can give them as your professional references too.

Generally, interviewers and prospective recruiters get a good impression when they learn you’re a member of a professional forum, guild or organization.

It is a clear indicator that you’re very serious about your profession- either as employee or freelancer or even businessperson.

Usually, such organizations conduct seminars and training sessions or have newsletters informing members about the latest developments in any industry.

This means, you’re updated about everything new in your field.

Former or Existing Faculty Members

If you’re a fresher, take professional reference from some of your faculty members.

This can be done as long as you enjoy a healthy relationship with them and they appreciate your efforts towards learning the subjects they’re teaching.

Faculty members are usually well connected with the industry too. Hence, it’s quite likely that an interviewer, recruiter for freelance jobs or a business owner could know your faculty member personally.

Experienced or veteran jobseekers can also provide professional references of their former faculty members, as long as you’re in contact with them regularly.

Who knows, the same professor or lecturer could have trained your interviewer or employer too. You can also take reference letters from these faculty members and submit copies if necessary.

Prominent Members of a Community

If you belong to any specific community or minority group, you can safely provide references from a professional in your community or a prominent member.

That’s because prominent members of a community and leaders of that ethnic group have a right to refer excellent people for employment.

This privilege is given to community leaders and prominent members from that ethnic group to encourage participation in the labor force and assimilation in the society at large.

There are several such categories around the world where community leaders and prominent members can provide a reference for you to clinch the job.

Freelance Recruiters

If you’re a freelancer, references are of supreme importance, as I mention earlier. Therefore, every time you complete a freelance job, request a letter of appreciation.

Understandably, these people won’t give you a reference in its truest term. However, a letter of appreciation or an excellent review of your services on the freelance work portal serves as a superb reference in its own right.

The advantage of such appreciation letters or positive reviews is that you attract a larger number of clients for future jobs. And future employers will not bargain about your prices.

This translates as higher income for you. However, ensure that such online references are precise and honest.

There’s no point in getting exaggerated references since they can prove counterproductive and work against you in getting freelance work.

Who You Shouldn’t Choose as Professional Reference

While persons in these six categories will make excellent references, you also need to know what kind of professional reference you should not choose or avoid.

This might sound a bit difficult, especially if you don’t know many people.

However, with some effort, you can find the right people and avoid choosing persons under these categories as your professional references.

Political Leaders

A common mistake that people in several countries commit: they provide references of a political leader.

This can not only cost you the job or freelance assignment, but there’re also good chances you’ll remain unemployed.

This occurs because employers love to steer away their organizations away from political wrangles that affect the locality or country as a whole.

You might hope that a political leader, whose party is in power at the moment, might be a good reference and swing the balance in your favor. It might occur in a few cases.

But when that political party loses or your leader gets involved in some scandal, be prepared to draw flak from various quarters.

And most importantly, political leaders meet dozens of people daily. Therefore, the chances they’ll recognize you whenever an employer or an EBS checker calls are fairly slim.

And nor are such leaders easily available on phone.

Relatives of All Kinds

No employer or freelance hirer will ever accept references of a relative. Unless your dad or mom is a very prominent player in that specific profession and you’re following their footsteps.

Such types of references are only good if you’re applying for a fresher job because you cannot work for the organization where one or both your parents work.

In all other cases, references from relatives are not accepted, as a thumb rule. And there’s no point in trying to conceal your relationship with any reference.

An EBS will reveal that easily. Furthermore, you would be cheating an employer and could lose that prized job later, once they discover the truth.

Former Classmates/ Batch Mates

Another kind of reference you shouldn’t provide are those of your former classmates or batch mates at school, college or university.

Obviously, you’ll be providing references only of those classmates that you were pally with. And this isn’t something that employers would appreciate. You may have been a brilliant student.

Your degree certificates and mark sheets would testify to that fact. Therefore, there’s no point in including your former batch mates as references.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that a classmate would definitely give you an excellent reference.

Remember, no employer is going to reveal what your references say. If a batchmate or classmate doesn’t really know your work experience and abilities, they’re not in any position to refer you.

Friends from Another Profession

Friendship is fine but work and freelancing is another ballgame altogether. Therefore, never provide references of friends, gym mates, people with whom you play a sport, team members and similar people if they’re in a totally different profession.

At best, these people might be able to speak about you as an excellent person. And have no knowledge about how you fare as an employee or worker or what skills you excel at.

Remember, an employer wants references from someone that can speak about your educational interests and professional skills.

They don’t want long-winding testimonies about you as an exceptional human being. If your friends are from the same profession, it’s different.  You can cite them as references.

However, it’s better to reveal you are friends with the person. This signifies you’re honest about your references.

Deceased Persons

Before you laugh this off, let me assure you that this is a mistake that experienced jobseekers make very often. They provide references of deceased persons.

There’re two reasons for this. Firstly, the deceased person could be someone whom you knew and would be in a position to provide an excellent reference.

However, you were unaware about their demise. Secondly, some jobseekers give references of a deceased person because they were eminent personalities in the field.

And jobseekers believe that citing them might help land the job.

You can avoid these blunders simply by speaking to your references just before you’re applying for a job. And if you can’t trace them or they’ve passed away, don’t as much use their name.

You might end up being a laughing stock or worse, an employer might view you as a fraud.

I’ve come across CVs where people provide references of deceased persons out of emotional attachment or some form of reverence too.

Junior Workers/ Your Trainees

If you’re applying for a senior position, never give professional references of your trainees or junior workers. Some of my trainees are at a senior position in a specific industry today.

However, I don’t provide their references because it denigrates my own skills as the trainer. I cannot claim that these trainees are successful solely because of my training.

And it’s absurd that a trainer should provide references of past trainees and junior workers who would report to you.

This is the surest way of losing a job even before you’ve got it. Providing references of a trainee or junior staff is in extremely poor taste.

It shows you have no other worthwhile contacts or people to testify about your skills. And it is also dangerous because not all trainees or junior staff might speak well about you.

Regardless, giving references of junior workers or your own trainees is an unacceptable practice in every manner.

Using Religious Leaders or Not?

This is a question I get often. Some applicants say they would like to cite their religious leader of a church, synagogue, temple or other religious places where they or their family attend congregations.

Bringing in religious leaders or men of religion into recruitment is an unhealthy practice. Firstly, they have nothing to do with your skills.

They might be able to vouch for your good character or family background. However, it’s best to keep religion away from jobs and business.

Closing Thoughts

Now that you’re aware whose references you can use and whose to avoid, it would become easier to draft that CV or Resume, create an online profile or LinkedIn page. Be selective about your references.

If necessary, change your references for every single job application, on the basis of what an employer is looking for. Remember, a reference can make or break your career.

Hence, it’s best to choose wisely. And before concluding, I would suggest you speak with your references clearly about the job you are applying for and why you need to cite their names.

Prepare them to receive a call from your future employer or an EBS company.

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