Are Job References Really That Important?

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If you are currently looking for a new job then there is a very good chance that at some point you are going to be asked to provide a list of contactable references. The logic behind a company requesting references is that they would like to get an accurate picture of what type of employee you were in the past. The assumption is that this will predict your future performance. Now of course you have a huge advantage here as you get to choose who will be providing a job reference on your behalf. And anyone with anything bad to say about you probably will not be appearing on your reference list.

In this article we are going to discuss some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding job references and reference letters. Including who you should use as a reference, and how to ask someone or let them know that you would like to include their details as a reference on your CV. Hopefully, by the end of this, you will be in a better position to rethink your current reference list and put forward your best options moving ahead.

References provided for a job search

How many references should I list on my CV?

In South Africa, most employers will expect you to provide them with a list of 2 – 3 contactable references. This is the perfect number in my opinion. However, if for any reason an employer requests more than this you should do your very best to follow their instructions.

I think that I should mention here that any reference you list on your CV must be contactable. There is nothing worse for a recruiter or hiring manager to start dialing numbers only to get “this number does not exist” from an automated system. In fact, this just might be enough to ensure that you do not get called in for an interview.

Should I ask before listing someone as a reference on my CV?

Yes, this is very important! You should always ask someone, or at the very least, let them know that you would like to use them as a job reference on your CV. There are many practical reasons for this which we will discuss later, but essentially it is just polite to do so. Also, if you have been off the job market for a while but are going to start searching again it is worthwhile to reach out to your references once again and let them know your plans.

As I said besides simply being polite, there are two very practical reasons for asking someone to be your reference:

  1. It gives the person an opportunity to think about what they will say about you ahead of time rather than simply being put on the spot. You can even take further steps by letting them know what job you will be applying for. This will allow them to identify your best qualities for the position and they will probably mention these when contacted.
  2. You know that the contact details you are providing are up to date.
You will be confident that they have the time to talk to whoever might call on them. If they do not have the time they will probably let you know when you ask.

When you decide to ask someone to give a reference on your behalf it is also a good idea to ask in such a way that makes it easy for the person to back out of it if they do not feel they are up to the task. You will quite often find that someone who might not give you a good reference would rather opt-out than lie.

And lastly on this subject. When I say “act as a reference” I do not mean “act.” It is becoming quite commonplace for employees to list their friends as past employers or managers. Do not do this, you will get caught and it will make it very difficult for you to find a new job moving forward.

Personal vs Professional Job References

What is the difference between a personal job reference and a professional reference?

Personal References

This is usually referred to as a character reference. Generally speaking someone you ask to provide a personal reference will probably know you quite well. You will more likely than not have a personal relationship with them rather than a business relationship. They will discuss your personal characteristics and abilities from a less professional point of view.

If you do not have enough professional references on your CV, or you are looking for your first job just out of university then supplying a personal reference will probably be a really good idea.

Professional References

This is a reference from a person who can vouch first hand for your abilities and qualifications relating to a specific job. They will be able to discuss your professionalism, work ethic, and relationships with co-workers.

This is generally someone that you have worked with previously such as a former employer, colleague, client, or supervisor.

Who should you use as a reference on your CV / Resume?

In South Africa, there are a few expectations when it comes to listing job references on your CV / Resume. Below is a list of people you should consider using when you put together your reference list.

1) Recent employer or direct supervisor

Who better to speak about your work ethic and abilities than your most recent boss or supervisor? If possible you should always use this person as your first reference on the list. If you leave this person off for whatever reason it will give the impression that you are hiding something from your previous job.

That being said there are many reasons why you might not want to use this person as a reference. For example, maybe you are still employed at the job and do not want your employer to know that you are job searching. If this is the case you might want to use a co-worker from your current job that you know you can trust.

2) Co-workers

This is second best to having your employer give you a reference for obvious reasons. However, if you are concerned that your previous or current employer will not give you a good reference then this is a good second best.

Make sure the person you use knows a fair amount about what your job description was/is, and make sure that they can communicate this effectively.

3) Professors or lecturers

There are two reasons you may want to use a professor as a professional reference on your CV.

  1. If you are applying for a job in a specific field and this professor is an expert in the field and can discuss your knowledge and abilities in the field as well.
  2. If you have just finished university and do not have other references to list. You might need to use one of your lecturers as a reference. Make sure your lecturer knows who you are, and make sure you ask permission to use them as a reference.

Who should you not use for a job reference?

Remember that at crunch time a reference can make or break your chances of getting hired. Here are some people you should never use as a reference on your resume.

1) A previous boss who fired you

I think it is safe to say that if you were fired you probably did not leave the company on good terms. Why would this person give you a good reference? They will either say nothing (which actually says a lot) or they will be honest in their opinion of you, and this is probably not going to be a very flattering opinion.

2) Family members

Even if you have worked for your family I suggest you try to find an alternative reference to submit. The reason for this is no one would expect your family member to be unbiased in their assessment of your working ability.

Even if it is just a character reference it makes no sense. If you get a bad reference from a family member the hiring manager will think that you are terrible, and if you get a good reference the hiring manager will just think your family is incapable of being objective about another family member. It is a lose/lose scenario so don’t bother.

3) Close friends

Again your friends are very unlikely to be objective about your abilities so it does not make much sense to list them on your CV. That being said, if your friend was a previous colleague it might be acceptable. But in this case, list them as a previous work colleague rather than your BFF.

4) Anyone not expecting a call

As we mentioned earlier you should ask permission from potential references or at the very least let them know that you intend to use them as a job reference on your CV for your current job search (remember you must do it for each and every job search)

It is as simple as notifying them when you are going for an interview.

How should you list your references on your CV?

In some countries, they actually recommend that you supply a reference list along with your cover letter, or after your interview when requested. So your list of references is not included on your resume but is actually a separate document.

Here in South Africa, it is commonly accepted that you should include a list of references at the end of your CV. As we mentioned earlier, unless otherwise specified, 2 – 3 references should be absolutely perfect. I recommend a very simple format for this, but honestly, as long as it is neat and fits the theme of your CV it will be fine.

Include the following information:

  • Name and surname of the reference
  • Position held at the company
  • Contact number

Joan Snow

Managing Director at Winter (Pty) Ltd

097 020 0202

If you like you can include an E-Mail address, but it is quite unlikely that it would ever be used and is probably just wasting space.

Reference letters

A great addition to listing references is to attach a written reference letter to your CV with your job application. I say addition here not an alternative because there is nothing better than speaking to a past employer to get a good sense of a person’s abilities.


References are extremely important when searching for a new job. They have the ability to make or break your chances of getting hired. It is a major warning sign for a hiring manager or recruiter when an application comes through with no references.

If you feel that you have no references you should some time to sit down and really think about who you could list on your CV. Make sure they know that they may be contacted, and make sure that they only have good things to say about you. I mean come on, you are awesome! There is someone out there that will confirm this on your behalf, just find them!

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