How to Develop Powerful References and Recommendations

The right set of references and recommendations can go a long way toward helping you land a job or freelance assignment.

A reference is someone who will speak on your behalf and confirm your skills, work history, attitude, and results. A recommendation is a written statement attesting to your skills, work history, attitude, and results, and can be provided via letter or post on a professional profile such as LinkedIn.

References should meet several criteria in order to be effective:

a. The person should be in a position of authority for their reference to carry any meaning.

b. They must be personally familiar with you, your character, and your work capabilities.

c. They must be willing to speak on your behalf when contacted for a reference and provide a favorable recommendation.

Among good sources for references are current and former employers, internship supervisors, professors and faculty members, community and business leaders, customers, volunteer organization leaders, neighbors and others in a position of visibility and credibility. Individuals can serve as both a reference and provide a recommendation.

How to Ask for a Reference or Recommendation

There are several best practices steps to take when requesting someone serve as a reference for you or provide you with a recommendation:

a. Contact the individual in person or via phone/video. While you might be tempted to send an email, you will improve your chances of speaking to the person directly and asking if they would be comfortable serving as a job reference and/or providing you with a recommendation.

b. Provide the details you want them to write about or confirm. You will want to identify specific areas you’d like the reference/recommender to address. If you know the employers or types of jobs for which you’ll be applying, discuss them and ask if the reference/recommender feels they could serve in this capacity.

c. Offer to write a first draft of a recommendation. Include the specific things you would like to see emphasized, thus relieving the recommender of having to spend time developing the first draft.

d. Ask employers for recommendations with each positive performance review. This way you can build a library of recommendations over time from different people.

e. Ask customers for whom you’ve delivered exceptional service. For customers whose expectations you’ve exceeded through exceptional customer service, you’ve earned the right to ask for a recommendation and reference.

Additional Best Practices for References

a. Develop a list of ten to twelve qualified references.

b. Obtain full, complete, and current contact information for each reference and place it into your reference database.

c. Verify that each reference is comfortable being contacted by prospective employers, and will provide a positive reference for you.

d. Notify references each time you provide their name and contact information so they can expect to be contacted. This is a very important step!

e. Unless otherwise specified, offer four or five references which are relevant to the specific job search (example: if applying for a finance position, an effective reference would be a previous employer’s Controller).

f. Don’t provide references until you are asked for them, and avoid stating “References available upon request” on your résumé or job application.

Additional Best Practices for Recommendations

a. Obtain recommendations on the reference’s letterhead to include in your portfolio.

b. Collect recommendations over time. For social networks such as Linkedin you’ll want at least ten difference recommendations that can be posted on your profile.

c. In LinkedIn, post at least three recommendations from credible sources, which should appear with each associated employment or education experience.

d. Return the favor of a recommendation, but only if you have enough experience with the person to be able to speak accurately about their work, accomplishments, qualities, and character.

This article is excerpted from the 6th edition of Boyer Management Group’s Job Search Readiness Assessment Development Guide, which explains more than 2,500 job and career search best practices.

Boyer Management Group works with employers, organizations, and job seekers alike to help them become more successful. For employers, we offer world-class talent development, leadership and management training, acquisition and onboarding tools and programs to help employees and volunteers achieve consistent, optimal performance. For job seekers and universities, we offer tools, assessments, books, and curricula to help connect people with careers. To find out more, please visit us at, or call us at 215-942-0982.


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