Once you’ve applied for some jobs and completed some interviews, a potential employer is probably going to ask for your references. References can make or break for your job application at this point–so what are your options if you don’t have any prepared?
There are many reasons you don’t have any references. If you’re new to the workforce, you probably haven’t had the time to establish relationships. Or you may be new to the country, so your references may be too hard to contact due to language or time zone barriers. Alternatively, you may have had some bad experiences with your former supervisors!
Whatever your reason is for not having good references, our team of career experts and former hiring managers have 5 tips to help you out.
What to do if you don’t have professional references:
1 . Start by looking at your professional network
If you’re on LinkedIn, there’s a good chance your network includes past coworkers, former college professors, or people you currently work with. Look at your list of connections and try to identify some people who A. know you and B. could speak positively about you.
As a career coach, I often advise my clients to think of non-traditional references such as educators, coworkers, and leaders from community involvement. Even if you have a supervisor who will give you a glowing review, it’s great to offer a few references that can offer a different perspective.
If youвЂ™ve never held a job before, you obviously won’t have any connections who have supervised you at work. However, you might be connected with one of your college professors who can speak to your skills and work ethic. If you’re a recent graduate, this is a perfectly valid option for a reference!
Meanwhile, if you have held a job before, you’re not limited to using your supervisor as a reference. Former (or current) colleagues are often great references, as they can talk about how you work as part of a team or perform similar job functions. Be careful about including your current coworkers in a stealth job search, however; you might be putting them in an awkward position.
Here are some templates you can use to ask your network to be a reference for you.
2 . Have you done any internships, volunteer work, or freelancing?
Job seekers often overlook internships, volunteer work, and freelancing gigs when it comes to work experience! Not all good experience is full time, long term, or even paid. If you have these types of experience, you have supervisors, volunteer coordinators, or clients you can reach out to for a recommendation.
Ideally, people of this category will be both relevant and credible. For example, if you’re now trying to land an entry-level marketing job and your college internship reported to a Marketing Manager, that person would be a great reference option.
On the other hand, your neighbor you once did some yard work for won’t be as compelling to a hiring manager. Use that reference only as a last resort.
Hiring managers want to know how well you work AND how you work with others. Getting references from a variety of sources can solidify who you are in the hiring process.
You want most of your references to be about your professional attributes. However, you don’t have to rule out references that can speak about your other abilities such as teamwork, organization, and soft skills.
3 . Do you really need references?
There are some situations that don’t always require references:
Jobs you were referred to
Certain entry-level positions
Companies with limited hiring resources
When you get recommended for a job by someone at the company, you sometimes bypass the reference requirement: someone has already vouched for you. Here is how to ask for a job referral, including templates to use for emails and LinkedIn messages.
Some companies hiring for entry-level jobs understand that entry-level candidates may not have any useful references. Sometimes you can identify these jobs by looking for a “no references required” note on the job description. Other times, you just won’t be asked for references at any point. In either case, it’s still a good idea to have a professional reference page available, just in case.
Finally, some companies simply don’t have the capacity to check references. This might be a startup, or a small business that has one person for hiring, HR, operations, and accounting.
4 . Ask people to recommend you on LinkedIn
The easiest way to get people to write you a recommendation on LinkedIn is to write them a great recommendation first! LinkedIn recommendations appear on your profile; both the ones you send and the ones you receive. You should reference specific group projects or skills to give your recommendation context (and credibility). Aim to write a few thoughtful recommendations for your coworkers or recent classmates, and then follow up with a message asking for one in return.
Most employers will look for you online before inviting you for an interview, so LinkedIn is a great tool to leverage! LinkedIn recommendations are useful to employers because they often insight to what other people think of you. That’s the basic idea of a professional reference, too! If you have several good recommendations on your LinkedIn, employers may be satisfied with the information and not seek out more.
check out our expert’s 5 top tips on how to apply for jobs online using your LinkedIn profile and your resume.
Employers ask for references to find out if you are reliable and can do the job. Anyone can give you a ‘professional’ reference for your first job if they know about your skills and achievements. Think about:
- teachers, tutors, lecturers or instructors from school, college, university or any other type of course
- work experience managers
- volunteer managers
- people who know you who are in paid work
- people from your community
Some employers will ask for character references. Instead of focusing on your work experience and performance, a character reference is about you as a person. You can ask anyone who knows you well.
People who can give you a good reference
People will be good referees if they:
- are professionals rather than friends
- can be contacted easily when you apply for a job
- have known you for a long time
Stay in touch with people who can give you a good reference.
Asking people to give you a reference
If you think someone could give you a reference, ask them if they’re happy to do this. How you ask depends on your relationship. You can ask friends in person or by text. Or ask professionals by sending a polite email like this:
I hope you’re well. I’m applying for jobs as a [job role] and was wondering if you would act as a referee in my applications? If this is OK, could you please let me know how you’d like to be contacted and your contact details? Many thanks for your time.
Most professional people will know about providing references. If you get a job offer, make sure you can give your referees’ details, such as:
- contact information
- job title
- relationship to you
And let your referees know to expect to be contacted!
Volunteering can help
If you’ve volunteered in a role related to the job you’re applying for, your referee can say that you have the skills for the job. Ask for a reference during or at the end of your placement.
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No References on Resume?
It is not necessary to list references on your resume, or to say that your references are available upon request. The employer assumes that you can provide references if asked. Although it is customary to give the name of a current supervisor as a reference, there are many understandable reasons not to do so, such as keeping your job search confidential. Or you may be a young person looking for your first real job. As an alternative to listing your current boss, you can use individuals who have interacted with you in other ways and would speak well of you.
List all the people in your life who could provide information that would offer insight into your work ethic, talent, people skills and other job related characteristics. For instance, you might seek a reference from a former boss, co-worker, coach, teammate, band member, lab partner, classmate, volunteer coordinator, principal, school counselor, teachers, academic adviser, neighbor, landlord, minister or scout leader. Tap your creativity when brainstorming possibilities.
Self-Employed Reference Letters
Being self-employed shows you are a self-starter with entrepreneurial spirit. The only downside is that you don’t have a boss to list as a professional reference on your job application. But avoid saying, “I don’t have any job references for this job application,” which might suggest that you haven’t asked for a reference, or perhaps there was some sort of impediment in the way of obtaining a reference. Anyone who has ever asked you to watch their house, supervise their children, let their dogs out, take photos at an event, fix a computer, set up band equipment or help with odd jobs around the house may be willing to describe you as reliable and dependable, which is what a hiring manager hopes to hear. If you are in business for yourself, a self-employed reference letter could come from your banker, vendor or even customers. Reach out, explain your situation and ask them to serve as a reference. A self-employed reference letter can be impressive.
I am moving back East to be closer to family, and I will be looking for job after many years of being my own boss. I am applying to management positions, and I am hoping that I could list you as a reference on my job applications. I thought of you because we have worked together for 10 years, and you could answer any questions about my customer service philosophy and business reputation in the community.
Overcoming No References for Grad School
You can find a solution to the problem of having no references for grad school. Each graduate program sets its own requirements for letters of recommendation, so start by carefully reading the application instructions for guidance on the number and type of letters preferred. Graduate admissions committees prefer letters from those who can speak directly to your ability to handle rigorous graduate classes, participate in intellectual discussions and conduct research. For that reason, it is best to email, visit or call a former college professor, lab coordinator, academic adviser or even another student who participated on a research team with you. When writing to them, refresh their memory of who you are by indicating dates of attendance and mention any meritorious undergraduate accomplishments.
I am a former student who took your history class four years ago. Your engaging class presentations contributed to my desire to pursue a master’s in history at your alma mater. I am hoping you will consider writing a letter of recommendation in support of my application. Attached you will find a resume and an ‘A’ term paper I saved from your class that includes your positive critique of my work over the course of the semester.
Asking for Reference Letters
Set aside your anxieties about asking for reference letters, especially from instructors who write them routinely. Many teachers use a template that they quickly customize to describe a student’s performance. Only ask for a reference from individuals you trust to speak positively about you without throwing up red flags. Later, follow up with a thank you note. Never list anyone as a reference without seeking prior approval. If the person declines, then be glad you didn’t name that person as a reference. Provide references with your resume, and offer some idea of what to expect in a reference call.
Thank you for agreeing to be my reference for shipping jobs. You may be hearing from employers that are hiring shipping and receiving workers. I have attached my resume so that you will have the dates when we worked together. Explain that you were my team leader at the old warehouse, which then later burned down, and then just answer questions about my job performance.
Are you in a situation where you’ve received a reference request from a former work colleague, or someone who’s a friend?
Of course, if they’re hard workers and good at what they do, feel free to give them a glowing reference.
But what do you do if, for one reason or another, you can’t recommend them?
This is a really difficult situation and one that you need to handle with care. To help, this blog looks at some of the reasons why you should decline a reference request and shares tips on how to say no politely, without causing offence.
3 reasons to decline a reference request
Writing a reference, creating a recommendation on LinkedIn, or talking to a prospective employer over the phone is a great way to help someone secure their new job.
But you shouldn’t feel obligated to provide a reference for someone if you don’t feel 100% comfortable with it. In some cases, you may just have a gut feeling that you don’t want to provide a reference.
Here are three important instances when you should certainly think twice about providing a reference:
1. You haven’t worked with that person for very long
If you don’t feel you know the person well enough and don’t have enough information to pass comment on their skills, don’t feel like you must provide a reference.
You run the risk of your answers being vague, which won’t provide them with any benefit.
2. You know they’re not a strong candidate
Have you had bad experiences with the person, or do you feel they don’t merit a positive reference? Perhaps they’ve been turning up for work late and leaving early, they’re not a true team player, or have bad work ethics.
Of course, you could give them a negative review, but sometimes it’s best to stick to the saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
3. HR policies at your company forbid you
Some businesses have rules in place around providing references. If you receive a reference request, make sure you check your employee handbook first, to avoid getting yourself into any hot water for conflicts of interest.
How to say no without causing offence
It’s not always a comfortable situation having to say no to someone. In fact, it’s a skill that many people lack or avoid all together.
Make sure you think through your response carefully first though, to avoid causing any upset or offence. If you’re unsure how to say no, here are some things you could consider saying, along with some tips to help make it easier for you:
When you don’t know the person well enough, it can be tempting to just ignore their request. However, make sure you respond promptly, so they have time to formulate another plan. To turn them down politely, you could write: “I’m sorry, I don’t feel I have worked with you long enough to provide you with an accurate and thorough recommendation, but I wish you all the best with your job hunt”.
If you know the person well, but feel you can’t give a positive recommendation, you should explain that you don’t think you’re the right person to do it. Where possible, respond to the request in writing. This will give you a chance to pick your words carefully. Be clear and concise, so you don’t allow any room for them to persuade you otherwise. Be professional too – there’s no need to be negative and this isn’t the right time to highlight all their shortfalls. Here’s an example of what you could write: “I don’t think I am the best person to write you a recommendation, but I’m sure there’s someone much better suited to speak about you.”
If you can’t provide a reference due to company policies, explain that to them. They’ll understand your hands are tied. If you feel bad about saying no, perhaps ask if there is anything else you could do to help them. For example, you could suggest you look out for job opportunities for them, read over their CV or provide some career advice. Here’s a suggested response you could write: “I’m sorry, it’s our company policy not to write recommendations. I hope you understand. If there’s anything else I could do to help, please let me know”.
Knowing how to say no is an important skill and one that is vital to master in your career.
Remember, you’re under no obligation to give a reference, so stick with your decision, reply promptly and always remain professional.
Many employers ask job candidates to include one or more professional references on their application. Before you list someone as your reference, you should ask their permission. This lets them be prepared and might improve your chances of getting a good recommendation. In this article, you can learn how to ask someone to be a reference with examples.
What is a professional reference?
A reference is someone who can describe or confirm your professional experience. Examples of possible references include former coworkers, work or internship managers, professors, coaches, or even heads of organizations you have volunteered with. Hiring managers might call your references and ask them questions about your skills and background. How your references describe you personally and professionally may help you get hired.
How to ask someone to be a reference
You can ask someone to be a reference through a phone call, letter or email if you cannot meet them in person. First, make a list of the people you would like to be your references. Choose people who respect your work and will likely give you a positive review. Contact them in order of preference until you have enough references to list on your job application. Employers often ask for two or three references.
Follow these steps to ask someone to be a reference:
1. First, be sure to give them enough time to respond before you apply or interview
Ask someone to be a reference before you apply for a job. Give them time to consider your request, review your resume and the job description and prepare responses to questions the hiring manager may ask. Keep your reference request brief, however, be polite.
2. Then, briefly recap how you know each other
Update them on what you are currently doing since you last time you spoke or saw each other. If it has been years since you talked to a possible reference, reintroduce yourself, explain how they know you.
3. Next, form your question in a way that lets them say no if they need to
Ask someone to be your reference politely and without putting pressure on them to say yes. For example, you might say, ‘Would you feel comfortable providing me with a professional reference?’ rather than, ‘Can you be my reference?’
4. Then, describe the job you are applying for
Send your reference a description of the job you want and the skills and experience it requires. If they understand the industry and the position, they can talk with the hiring manager about the traits you have that are the most relevant. The more information you can give a potential reference about the job you are applying for, the better prepared they will be to give you an effective recommendation.
5. Next, send your resume to each reference
Your resume helps remind your references of projects you have worked on together and tells them what you have been doing between then and now.
6. Last, confirm their contact information
Make sure you have the current and preferred mailing address, email address and phone numbers for your references. Ask them how they would like the hiring manager to contact them. Also, confirm their current job title.
Example of how to ask someone to be a reference
Many people first ask someone to be a reference through email. This lets you attach or provide links to useful documents such as your resume and the job description. Here is an example of a reference request email:
Subject line: Jackie Cook: Reference Request
Dear Dr. Devon Hart,
I am currently applying for a job as Marketing Assistant at Carlyle Media Group and would be honored if I could list you as a reference. After working together for two years at Blue Sky Publishing, I believe you can testify to my skills and experience in the media and marketing industry.
I have attached my resume and a description of the Marketing Assistant position here for your review. Please let me know if you need any more information. Thank you for considering my request, and I look forward to hearing from you.
If you ask someone to be a reference in a letter, follow a similar outline, but organize it in business letter format. This format includes your name and contact information at the top of the page, followed by the date, your reference’s name and contact information.
If you ask someone to be a reference over the phone or in person, the conversation will be more flexible. Still, give your reference the same information you would list in an email request, but let the conversation guide you.
Tips for asking someone to be a reference
When asking someone to be a reference, follow these tips to make sure you do so thoughtfully and professionally:
- Ask in order of preference
- Listen for hesitation
- Say thank you
- Give updates
Ask in order of preference
Start your list of possible references with the people who you think can give you the most positive recommendation for this job. While most companies ask for two or three references, you might want to think of five or six people in case someone declines your request.
Listen for hesitation
If your possible reference shows any signs of reluctance to say yes—a long pause or moment of indecision, for example—give them a way to decline your request. You might say, ‘I understand if you do not feel comfortable providing me with a reference. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.’ The best references will be excited and eager to talk about your job qualifications.
Say thank you
Send each person an email or a letter thanking them for agreeing to be your reference. You might send an informal email right after they say yes, then a formal thank you after you learn whether you are hired.
Let your references know if you get the job. If they took the time to give you a reference, they likely want to know the outcome. Keeping them informed also helps maintain your relationship if you need another reference in the future.
After the required number of people agree to be references, list them on your job application or resume with each one’s full name, job title, company or department, phone number, email and mailing address. You might also include your relationship with that person. For instance, ‘Morgan Singer is the founder of the nonprofit I have volunteered with for the past four years.’
How you ask someone to be a reference can affect whether they say yes or no and whether they are prepared to give you a good review. Provide them with all the information they need to give you an effective reference. Then follow up with a thank you and an update as a professional courtesy.
Kelvin Murray / Getty Images
Alison Doyle is the job search expert for The Balance Careers, and one of the industry’s most highly-regarded job search and career experts. Alison brings extensive experience in corporate human resources, management, and career development, which she has adapted for her freelance work. She is also the founder of CareerToolBelt.com, which provides simple and straightforward advice for every step of your career.
What can you do if you are asked to write a recommendation letter or to provide a reference for someone you don’t want to recommend? Perhaps you have been unimpressed with the person’s job skills, teamwork, or work ethic. Perhaps you simply don’t know them well enough to describe their work performance effectively.
In any case, it’s better to turn down the request than to endorse someone if you’re not comfortable providing the recommendation.
You Have the Right to Decline a Reference Request
There is never an obligation to give someone a reference. You can politely and diplomatically decline the request without offending the person who asked you. The trick is to do so without making your refusal sound like a personal criticism or a professional rejection.
Here are two examples:
What to Say If You Don’t Know the Person Well: “I am sorry, but I do not feel I know you well enough (or have not worked with you long enough) to provide you with an accurate and thorough recommendation.”
What to Say If You Do Know the Person: “I do not feel I would be the best person to write you a recommendation,” and perhaps provide a suggestion for another person to ask.
More Tips for Declining a Reference Request
Here are more tips for how to say no in a professional manner:
- Don’t feel bad about saying no: Sometimes it is difficult to find a way to politely decline the request, but you would appreciate candor if someone you asked for a recommendation chose to decline. It’s better not to give a recommendation at all than it is to give a wishy-washy one. Any hiring manager will pick up on the lack of enthusiasm in the reference.
- Don’t wait: When you need to decline a request for a recommendation, try to do so as promptly as possible. It might be tempting to put it off—no one likes having to let someone down. But delaying is crueler than responding promptly, even if they don’t like what you have to say. You should give the person as much time as possible to line up alternative references if you can’t provide one.
- Be gracious: It’s better to decline the request than to write a lukewarm endorsement, but that doesn’t mean you have to be rude or overly critical in your response. There’s no need to make the interaction more negative than it needs to be. Besides, most industries are a small world. You never know when you might run into the person again someday at a future job.
- Be positive: If you can, include some positive feedback. Offer to help in another way; perhaps you can provide some job search advice for their target industry, or recommend a mutual acquaintance who would be a more appropriate person to endorse them.
- Keep it short: The message you need to convey is short—for a given reason, you’ll be unable to give a reference. A few paragraphs are more than enough to convey what you need to say.
- Always use “I” statements: Say “I feel that I don’t know you well enough,” rather than, “You haven’t made much of an impression on me.” Maintaining a respectful and mature dialogue will go a long way towards making the difficult refusal of a reference less painful.
When Human Resources Policies Ban Reference Letters
A growing tendency is for companies to establish policies that forbid the granting of references and recommendations. These no-reference policies were developed because of the many cases where employees have sued an employer for providing them with a negative reference. Check with your organization’s Human Resources department to determine if such a policy is in place.
What to Say When References Are Banned
What to say: “The company does not permit me to provide any references. I would only be able to confirm your job title, employment dates, and salary history. So it would be in your best interest to find someone else to provide a reference.”
Samples of Recommendation Request Rejection Letters
These sample letters and email messages are models to decline the request. As always, tailor them to fit your situation:
2022 Commerce Street, Ste. 3
Oceanside, MA 02190
37 Chestnut Street, Apartment B
Birmingham, MA 02192
I am glad to hear you are interested in a job in the publishing industry. I do not feel that I worked with you long enough to write you an accurate reference letter for your job search.
However, if you have any questions about job searching in the publishing industry, I would be happy to answer them.
Signature (hard copy letter)
34 Oak Street
Ocean View, NY 11732
12 Main Street, Apt. 3
Ocean View, NY 11732
Dear Ms. Johnson,
I am pleased to hear that you are applying for a sales position with XYZ Company. Unfortunately, since I haven’t had the opportunity to observe your work in this field, I would be unable to offer the strength of endorsement that one of your closer colleagues could.
Best of luck in your new endeavor.
Signature (hard copy letter)
15 Coastal Ave.
Los Angeles, California 90001
February 3, 2021
34 Sunny Way
Los Angeles, California 90001
I received your request for a letter of recommendation. I believe that you would be better served to utilize a reference who is more familiar with your coursework in a field related to the IT position at ABC Systems than I am.
I am happy to supply a general character reference, but I would not be able to speak directly to your qualifications for this position.
Use this sample reference letter when a colleague, former team member, student, or acquaintance asks for a personal recommendation. Be sure to modify this reference letter template with specific examples from your experience with that person.
How to write a reference letter
First, when someone asks you for a reference letter, think whether you can actually give them a good recommendation. If you’re not sure you can recommend them without thinking twice, it’s best to politely decline sending the referral letter rather than be forced to lie (or make negative comments ruining the other person’s chances).
If you’re sure you can write a positive professional reference letter, follow this process:
- Refresh your memory about the person. For example, ask HR what their exact title was when they worked in your team and for how long they stayed. Consult your own records to see if there are useful notes about them.
- Write down two-three qualities that characterize this person. If you can recall specific examples that prove these qualities, put them in your reference letter too.
- Think about specific experiences you had with that person. Especially instances where they showed positive attitude or knowledge. Include one example in your letter if possible.
- Use our reference letter template to shape your own letter of recommendation format.
At any case, you might need to spend half an hour or so to write a good recommendation letter, but if you have good things to say, this person is worth it.
Here’s our reference letter template:
Dear [ insert name ],
I am writing to recommend [ employee_name ]. [ He/She/They ] worked with us at [ company_name ] as a [ employee_job_title ] and [ reported to me/ worked with me ] in my position as [ insert your job title ].
As an employee, [ employee_name ] was always [ insert quality ]. During [ his/her/their ] time in my team, [ he/she/they ] managed to [ insert example ].
I’ve always put a premium on [ insert quality ] among my team members and [ employee_name ] never failed to deliver. An example was when [ insert example ].
[Employee_name] is a delight to work with and I wouldn’t hesitate to hire [him/her/them] again.
Should you have any further questions about [him/her/them], feel free to reach me at [ phone number ].
[ Your name and signature ]
How to use this reference letter format:
- Flesh it out . Use one or two sentences to give context to each of your examples.
- Be flexible . Use the template as a guide, but write in your own voice and say what you think is important.
- Be honest . Your former employee or colleague may be asked about the examples you provided. Don’t embellish to make them look good since this may come out eventually.
- Be targeted, if you can . If you have information about the job or program the employee is applying to, tailor your letter to reflect specific requirements. For example, if you know this job requires leadership skills , give relevant examples.
Here’s a reference letter example based on our template:
Dear Mr. Skywalker,
I am writing to recommend Leia Thompson. She worked with me at Acme Inc. as a Senior Product Manager and reported to me in my position as VP of Engineering.
As an employee, Leia was always reliable and resourceful. During her time in my team, she managed to conduct high-impact user research and make a number of key recommendations that resulted in an improved product (and subsequently increased sales).
I’ve always put a premium on initiative and willingness to learn among my team members and Leia never failed to deliver on both fronts. An example was when she suggested we create a regular internal meetup where more senior employees could answer questions from other employees about their work. She was the first to take advantage of the knowledge these meetups offered and implemented it in her own work.
Leia is a delight to work with – a team player with a positive, can-do attitude all the way. I wouldn’t hesitate to hire her again if the opportunity arose.
Should you have any further questions, feel free to reach me at +10000000.
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When writing your resume you might wish to avoid questions about short stay positions, experience from long ago or exactly how long you have been in the workforce. Employers scrutinize a potential employee’s age, experience and the time spent at each former job before calling her in for an interview. Although it is never recommended that employment dates be completely omitted, if you know how to avoid making them a centerpiece of your resume you can place yourself in the best possible light.
Create a skills-based resume and leave the traditional chronological format behind. This places the emphasis on what you can do and not when you’ve done it. List your three most well established and relevant skills in the first section of the resume. Title the section “Skills Summary,” and give some specific examples of how you developed and used each of the skills listed arranged as concise and descriptive bullet points.
Create a section titled “Work History” and list each of your most significant and relevant positions held. Include a description of the job and your accomplishments while there. Write in only the years you worked at a particular position and leave out the months entirely. You can also eliminate any positions held longer than 10 or 12 years ago because that would reveal that you have been in the workforce for longer than you might want to indicate. Anything prior to that cutoff date is typically inconsequential to hiring managers and HR professionals who are more concerned with current skills and experience.
Load the rest of the resume with sections like “References,” “Education Information,” any additional skills or certifications you have obtained and any non-career activities or skills that might have some positive bearing on your eligibility as an applicant. The idea is present the strongest evidence that you are a viable and desirable candidate for the position while downplaying any potential negatives. Because your resume is the first point of contact between you and your new employer, it should be designed to make the most of what you have to offer.