When you should (and shouldn’t) add references to your resume

It's hard to know when to include, or exclude, references from your resume. Here, we deconstruct when to include or exclude them, and how best to present them to your potential new employer.

Whoever said life isn’t a popularity contest must never have been in a job interview.

Half of life is getting other people to like you. Friends. Dating. Jobs. All of it’s easier if you have the knack for making a good first impression.

Popularity is a great tool for this. People are more inclined to like you if they know other people do as well.

That’s why companies care so much about speaking with your references when you apply for a job. They want to know that you showed up on time to work. They don’t want to hear that you tried to burn down the office.

But they also want to hear from someone else that you’re a generally pleasant human being. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that calling references is a thing of the past. Depending on the type of job you’re applying for, up to 89% of employers will want to speak to your references.

There’s something of a raging debate about adding those references to your resume. Should you? Shouldn’t you? Different career advisors say different things.

So let’s talk about when you might consider adding references to your resume.

The right time to add references to your resume

In the past, two references on a resume were the standard. But today, you should normally not include professional references on your resume.  But there are a few occasions when you should make an exception.

The first one is a no-brainer. If a hiring manager wants badly to see references, they will normally ask. If you see a note about references in a job poster, make sure to include them. Failing to do so shows that you didn’t actually read the description.

If there’s room, you can put them right on your resume. Otherwise, provide them in a separate document. But first, make sure to ask permission from your references. No one likes getting a phone call out of the blue. Before you list anybody as a reference, tell them you plan on doing so.

There’s an added benefit to alerting your references about the particular job you’re in the application process for.  They’ll be able to respond to the interviewer's questions with more knowledge. It will make you look good, and communicate a strong desire for the job. If the job post does not request references, there are only a few special circumstances you should consider using them.

Consider adding them if your job is unusually dependent on a strong network. Sales directors, business partnership managers, and some kinds of corporate lawyers are worth more with large networks. These help bring immediate business to the new firm you’re trying to join.

For these jobs, adding a few references says more about who you know than how you are as an employee. Similarly, consider adding a reference if you’ve worked for an all-star in your industry. Work in blockchain and have a personal relationship with Vitalik Buterin? Spread the word.

Same goes for Rand Fishkin in content marketing, Jack Dorsey in startup land, and Warren Buffet in finance. You get the point! Is it corny to name drop on a resume? Maybe, but remember, no one ever got a job through modesty alone.

When to leave references off your resume

In general, you should only include references if they are specifically requested. Even if they are requested, you can always put them in a separate document. There are a few reasons why you should avoid putting your references on your resume.

The biggest one is space. Your resume should not be longer than one page. That limited space is better used on listing experience and skills rather than on references.

There’s one big caveat. Most modern job applications happen over the internet. Many such applications do not have a space to upload extra documents. Resume, cover letter, maybe a LinkedIn profile, that’s it.

Sometimes, adding the reference to your resume is the only way to fit it in.There’s a handy way around this problem though. If the application demands references, there will probably be a special space for them. If they don’t you can mention the references in a cover letter.

Mention in your cover letter that you can provide references upon request. That way, you can communicate that you have them ready without clogging your resume. Keep your references in a separate document so you are prepared if the employer does ask for them.

But remember, unless they are requested, there are only a few instances when you want to add references. Read the job listing very carefully. 90% of the time, a line in your cover letter will be plenty.

How to seek a reference

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Now let’s talk about a nerve-wracking scenario: the first time you stumble across a job application that requires references.

It happens to all of us once. Who do you call? What do you say? These are all questions we can help you with.

Whenever you need to collect professional references, make a list of close professional contacts. Choose one who can provide information that is relevant to your new job.

Try to find someone who can speak on the qualifications and skills that make you the perfect candidate. It may go without saying, but you should only provide the contact information of someone you know will give you a favorable recommendation.Consider past employers, coworker, business contact, professors for academic jobs, or even a past customer or client.

This is harder when you’re early in your career. If you are, avoid falling back on friends or family. Try to find anyone whose relationship with you resembled a boss-employee arrangement. Interns, summer job bosses, even a sports coach will do.

And don’t stress. Entry level jobs will not expect you to already have extensive professional networks. Or, if they do, that’s probably not a good job to start out at anyway.Before you forward someone’s phone number or email to a potential employer, it is critical to get their permission.

Let your reference know that you plan on using them as a reference and let them know that they might be contacted. This way they can be plan ahead and be ready to give a glowing recommendation for you.

That’s also the only way to make sure that they won’t react with confusion when your hiring manager calls them. You should also give your reference some information about the position you applied for and the company you applied to. This will let them provide the best possible recommendation.

They will be able to relate your past experience, special skills, and strengths to the new job. Your reference may also find it useful to receive a copy of your up to date resume.

Don’t forget to say thanks

Another piece of advice if this is the first time you’ve used a reference: always say thank you.

It is always a good idea to send your references thank you notes or emails. This is a nice thing to do and it will show your reference that you really appreciate their assistance.

A handwritten note provides more of a personal touch, but emails generally work just as well.

Try your best to do this after each time an employer calls your reference. So if they get four calls during a particularly heavy job push, send four notes. And maybe a fruit basket. That reference has been a great advocate for you.

Formatting your references

If your job description does request a reference, or you have some other reason for including it, keep it neat.

You’ll only need four lines per reference. One for name, position, phone number, and email.

If this does need to go on your resume, you’ll want to add it to the very bottom. You’ll want to set them in two columns to minimize space. Something like this:

Best References Ever

Fake Namenson

President at Phoney Baloney

(444) 444 4444


Not Realston

Undersecretary of Oversecretaries

(555) 555 5555


You’ll have a bit more leeway if you can send your references in a separate document. Use that extra space to intro your references rather than just sending a blank document with their names and emails.You can even use it as another opportunity to sneak in a few notes on important projects you worked on with both people.

Winning the popularity contest

References are the perfect tool to convince a hiring manager that you’re a great person to work with. They’re worth quite a few bonus points in the popularity contest portion of a job interview

Perhaps that’s why some professionals are so over-eager to add their references straight on their resume.

But as we discussed, it’s relatively rare for that to be a good idea.You only want to add references to your resume if they’re specifically asked for and there’s nowhere else to stick them. Or maybe if one of them is Warren Buffet.

While they may not be on your one-page resume, it’s critical to have them ready.

Your reference can vouch for your professionalism, aptitude, and trustworthiness. Most employers will probably ask for them at some point in the hiring process. Good thing you’re now prepped and ready to hand over a set of references that will help you land that perfect job.

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