What You Need to Know about Submitting Job References

Job references are one of those mysterious elements of a job search that happen behind the HR curtain. Do they really contact my references? What do they ask?

This month, I talked with HR professionals and career coaches to learn more about how references are handled and how you can be proactive and strategic in submitting your references.

HR pros tell me it isn’t uncommon for a reference they contact to be:

✓ Unaware of the application.

✓ Unavailable to schedule a call.

✓ Unresponsive to the HR team’s outreach.

This creates delays in the hiring process and certainly doesn’t improve the HR team’s impression of the job candidate. There are so many hoops for HR to jump through in vetting a candidate—helping to make this one is easy can make a big difference in getting the offer sooner than later.

Here’s what you need to know about how the reference process works on the HR side, and what you can do on the candidate side to make a positive impression and keep the process moving forward smoothly.

Who should you ask to be your references?

Select three to five individuals who can vouch for your professionalism and results.  Those who can vouch for you only on a personal level are less helpful.

Ideal references—

  • Are former bosses/supervisors or those who reported directly to you.
  • Have first-hand experience working with you.
  • Have worked with you beyond just a few years.
  • Have worked with you within the last 5-8 years.

Do I need to tell my references I’m listing them?


As a matter of professional courtesy, ask each individual in advance if they are comfortable being cited as a reference for you. A simple email is typical. To make their role easier, provide them with:

  • A copy of your latest resume.
  • The job description for the role.
  • Where you are in the hiring process.

Will a prospective employer really call my references?

As with so many parts of the hiring process, you can never know for sure. But regardless, it’s your job as the candidate to have references ready when the need arises.

References are more likely to be used in certain industries and for roles involving management, leadership, or confidentiality. References are often used at the tail-end of the hiring process to differentiate well-qualified candidates.

Who will contact my references?

Typically this is not the hiring manager. Instead, calling on references is generally an HR function. (This is one reason why references should not be listed on your resume.)

HR managers are trained to ask specific questions and are sensitive to employment law and consistency in questioning to help eliminate bias and discrimination. HR reps will also read between the lines and listen to what your references DON’T say as much as what they do.

What will your references be asked?

This is an important question. A job candidate can be cut from consideration if a reference provides less-than-stellar feedback. So it’s important to think through what your reference will likely say in response to questions such as these:

What was the reason for leaving? (Important that the reference’s response matches the  candidate’s.)

Please describe the type of work for which the candidate was responsible.

How would you describe the applicant’s relationship with co-workers, subordinates, and superiors?

Is the candidate more of an individual contributor or more team-oriented

How did the candidate handle high-pressure or stressful work situations?

How would you describe the quantity and quality of output generated by the candidate?

What were the candidate’s strengths on the job?

What were the candidate’s weaknesses on the job?

What is your overall assessment of the candidate?

The candidate has applied for a position as a ____________ with our company. Do you believe the candidate would be a good fit for this type of position? Why or why not?

Would this individual be eligible for rehire at your organization? Why or why not?

Is there anything I haven’t asked about that someone considering this person for a job should be aware of?

If your reference isn’t likely to answer these types of questions with full enthusiasm, then you should probably rethink using them.

Of course, references don’t matter if your resume doesn’t get you past the interview phase. To lay the foundation for a successful job search, contact the resume pros at Upword Resume.