References can make a huge difference in a job application. If a candidate is able to list a glowing reference, it’s a lot easier for a hiring manager to make a decision.
However, a lot of job seekers may feel uncomfortable asking for a reference, or they might be hard to contact. If so, can you list someone as a reference without asking them first?
We asked career experts to share their insights.
Sherry Knight, B.A., PR, FCMC, CPHR
Certified Professional in Human Resources | President & CEO, Dimension 11
It’s best to ask permission to use their name even if you know the answer will be a resounding “yes”
Yes, of course you can go ahead without asking for permission—at your own folly! Everyone has a choice as to whether to ask or not to ask.
Many years ago, an individual presented a reference and, as always, was asked, “What might the reference say about you when we call them?” The reply was to the effect he was amazing at his job, someone who others looked up to and are of great value to his organization. On talking with the reference, however, there was a very different story.
The response to the question was “…not even if hell freezes over.”
Thus, the response, “…at your own folly!” Each individual looking for a new job needs to read their people well – and if you can’t, all the more reason to check with someone before using their name as a reference.
One should always ask permission of a potential reference for two reasons:
- So you know whether they will support you.
- So you can work with them to provide the best responses.
When you ask for support it is appropriate to:
- Indicate the position you are applying for
- Ask if you may use their name as a reference – if the answer is “no,” ask for clarification about how you might improve for the next job
- State you will provide a copy of the resume sent for the position
- Thank the individual
Help the reference support you by:
- Indicating you will connect when you have had an interview
- At that time share the questions
- Share your responses to each of the questions
- This allows your reference to reiterate what you have already stated
- Continue to thank them each time you present them as a reference
It is critical to be aware of what your reference might say about you.
There was a time when a great employee had to be let go for theft – a minor theft, yet theft nonetheless. The individual called asking for a reference. She has been a great employee in so many ways, and I said “yes,” and then added, “You know I will have to let them know why you were let go.”
Her response was, “Yes, I know, and I know you will be fair.” She got the job!
It is always important to be fair to the person you are asking for help – ask the question, keep them informed and thank them. It’s always best to ask permission to use their name, even if you know the answer will be a resounding “yes.”
Once you have the job, it is a great idea to provide a hand-written thank you card (not an email) that comes in the mail or even a small gift (plant, flowers, candy, cheese and crackers, wine) to show your appreciation. After all, it’s just good manners.
Related: Best Thank You Gifts
Adjunct Professor of Communication, University of Tampa
Notify your references in advance so they could speak knowledgeably about your skills and abilities
Speaking from all angles—job seeker, hiring manager, recruiting professional, and now college professor—you absolutely and positively need to notify your references.
You want your reference to be able to speak knowledgeably about your skills and abilities as they relate to this specific job. The only way they’re going to be able to do that well is to have advance notice.
As a college professor, I have taught hundreds of students over the past two decades.
When I am advised by one of them of a possible contact as a reference for their job application, I quickly review my records to refresh my memory. Then, when I am speaking with the recruiter/hiring manager, I’m able to speak knowledgeably about the individual’s strengths and, if appropriate, need for additional experience.
Related: When Do Employers Call References
As a former recruiter or hiring manager, I was able to pretty easily tell if the reference really knew who they were talking about.
So, if I’m going to be your reference, tell me the company, position, and responsibilities as you understand them. Then I can do my research and, as I love to say, “sing your praises.”
Executive and Career-Life Coach | President, Corlin Roberts Coaching, LLC
By asking someone if you can use them as a reference you can perhaps influence the things they mention
Can you list someone as a reference without asking them? Yes.
Should you? No way.
The whole point of providing references is to have someone willing and able to speak to your strengths, contributions, character, areas of opportunity, etc. The best way to enable someone to do that is to prepare them that the request may be coming their way.
This way, they’ve had time to collect their thoughts and come up with examples that back it up.
If they are taken off-guard, their first thoughts may be of the time you sang karaoke at the company reception or your computer froze during a Zoom meeting, leaving a hysterical and unflattering picture of you in the gallery before they come up with relevant examples.
By asking someone whether you can use them as a reference, you can gauge their level of support and perhaps influence the things they mention. If there are relevant aspects of your background that you’d like to have mentioned, let them know.
Most people want to be helpful, and if someone agrees to be a reference, that’s almost always their goal.
Another side benefit of asking someone whether they’ll be a reference is that, usually, people are flattered by the request. Asking them also gives you a concrete reason to contact someone, and networking is more critical than ever in this virtual work environment.
It may make you more comfortable to try to create a win-win by asking if there’s anything you can do to help them. You may be thinking that there’s nothing you could offer that would be of help, but you never know, and making the offer creates an environment where it’s not all about you.
When an employer is put in a difficult spot, it could lead to missing out on a great opportunity
One day we had a candidate who we really liked and wanted to move forward with and decided to call their references. One didn’t ever call us back. The second one acted really surprised they were receiving the call and didn’t know why we would be asking for a reference. They were caught off guard and gave half-hearted answers.
This led us to slow down a bit in our process, continue our interviewing, and ultimately select another candidate.
From the employer’s perspective, we had to ask the following questions:
- “Why didn’t the candidate tell them we were calling to ask for a reference?”
- “Did they really know the candidate well?”
- “Does the candidate have trouble communicating to others/asking for help?”
When an employer is put in a difficult spot (and potentially awkward conversation), it will always cause more friction in the process and potentially lead to missing out on a great opportunity.
Audra Cona, PHR, SHRM-CP
Chief People Officer, Solution Publishing
Today’s question should be how relevant a reference to the hiring process is
Requesting and checking references, in general, is an outdated process. Instead of asking if references should be notified in advance, today’s question should be how relevant a reference to the hiring process is.
In HR, we know applicants hand-select individuals they trust to provide glowing reviews as references. This provides a false sense of security to a hiring manager hoping to gain insight into the candidate’s work ethic. It can also validate any preconceived beliefs the hiring manager already has about the individual.
Many organizations will now only validate dates of employment and position held. As a reference check, this information provides very little substance to someone hoping to get to know the candidate better.
Instead, hiring managers should use the following guidelines:
- Don’t rush the hiring process. It takes time to find the right fit, and all parties involved need to understand this in advance.
- Tiered and panel interviews provide multiple opportunities for the applicant to demonstrate consistency across interviews. They also allow the manager to gather other team members’ perspectives on the potential new hire.
- Get applicants out of the office. Take them on a meet-and-greet, to lunch or for coffee. Make them feel comfortable so that you can get to know them as a person.
Susan Collins, PHR, CI
Talent Acquisition Leader | Strategic Job Search Consultant, The Network Concierge
Reach out to potential references to let them know what position you’re interviewing for
Not only should you not put someone down as a reference without getting permission, I tell my clients that they also need to go one step further.
When asking someone to be a reference, it is essential that they also understand what the person providing a reference will say about them. I recommend reaching out to potential references to let them know what position they are interviewing for and why they believe they are a final candidate.
It is essential to ask: “Would you mind if I provided your name as a reference?” However, the most important part of the conversation is the follow-up. They need to follow the request up with: “What would you tell them are my strengths and weaknesses?”
As a former recruiter and Talent Acquisition leader, I spent years getting references to tell me more than they ever intended at the start of our conversation. Good recruiters can get the answers they need.
It is best to understand how your references genuinely feel about you before turning their name over to a professional.
HR Business Partner, Resume-Now
A reference should always be aware of when you’re putting down their name
Ideally, there is a bond of mutual trust, respect, and admiration between you and your endorser. It is therefore essential to keep cultivating that positive rapport and relationship.
This, too, includes open and honest communication, where you always:
- ask if they would be willing to be your reference
- let them know when the potential employer might be reaching out.
Now, in a situation where the person already agreed to be your reference moving forward, you don’t need to remind them in every instance. That said, it’s still polite and courteous to give them a heads up beforehand.
Thus, in no circumstances should the reference be blindsided by a random person calling or emailing them without prior knowledge of it. That is simply in poor taste and a very immature way of going about securing their endorsement.
President and Executive Recruiter, Clay Burnett Group
Never use someone’s name without telling them, and never lie on your resume
First, you run the risk that the person you’ve named is offended and says something damaging about you just because they are irritated.
Second, you miss the great opportunity to make contact with your reference in advance. It’s smart to talk with someone who can boost your application by giving them a heads-up about the job you are seeking.
This is a chance for you to give them a few talking points about why you are a good fit for the new job description. Don’t miss this chance to sell yourself!
Always let your potential references know that you are in the job market and ask their permission to use their name. It makes great business sense.
HR Consultant | Recruiter | Career Coach
I would advise against listing someone as a reference without asking them
I’ve done it as a candidate, it’s been done to me as a reference, and I’ve seen it unfold as a recruiter.
First, you want a reference to be prepared and expect a call or email from the recruiter. How many of us totally ignore unknown numbers or phishy emails? Exactly.
Next, you’re asking a favor of someone — you need them to vouch for you. The least you could do is muster the courage to request that they be a reference.
It doesn’t need to be scary; a simple email or LinkedIn message explaining the role you’re looking to get and why they would make a good reference is more than enough.
Director of Operations, MyCorporation
Do not list someone as a reference without their permission
I believe the best approach to references on job applications is to first speak with the person you would like to list as a reference and ask if they would be willing to act as your reference.
Do not list someone as a reference without their permission.
A reference should be someone that has worked with you in a professional setting. They understand certain aspects of your work ethic and may speak to your character.
If you would like to list someone to be your reference who has not worked with you in a long time, reach out to them and get their approval and proper contact information to send along to the hiring manager.
SEO Consultant and CEO, Play Media
It’s common courtesy to ask for permission before you list someone as a reference
I consider it a common courtesy to ask for permission before you list someone as a reference. It’s the polite thing to do and tells a little something about your character.
You shouldn’t put your person of reference in an awkward situation regardless of whether they’re a personal reference or a previous employer.
However, asking for permission to list someone as a reference is more than just a matter of courtesy. Giving them a heads-up might be the difference between your reference giving you a shining recommendation and struggling to outline your qualities.
The person calling is also likely to pick up on this and realize you haven’t done your duty – it will look bad on you.
You could be asked before an interview to fill out a references sheet.
If you’re caught by surprise and haven’t really notified anyone beforehand, it’s alright to add your previous employer on there. Then let that person know what happened as soon as possible.
Founder & CEO, SignWell
You should go one step ahead and send your referrals, your resume, and the job description
Just because someone was your favorite co-worker or mentor doesn’t mean they’ll be excellent references. This is a mistake I often see potential employees make. The relationship might be so good that you don’t even think of asking permission first.
It can ruin your possibilities of landing a job.
You should go one step ahead and send your referrals, your resume, and the job description. This will make it easy for them to give a contextual referral.
You can be good at a lot of things. But what are those skills they see in you perfect for this job? You need to help your referrals to help you. Otherwise, all the hard work you put into the interview will go to waste.
Also, do not ask the same referrals to help you out for every job interview. This can burn them out and make them feel “tired” of your job hunt. Worst case scenario, they might feel too “used” and create faultlines in the relationship. So, keep switching your referrals from time to time.
CEO & Co-Founder, Dwellsy
If a reference has not been notified, they might not respond or might give you a lesser reference
I would never list a reference that has not been asked and notified that they might be contacted. When you’re providing a reference, you’re asking someone to vouch for you in a high-stakes situation.
If that reference is surprised by being contacted, they might not respond, or worse, they might give you a lesser reference as a result of you not doing the up-front work to make sure they’re on board.
Not asking = missed opportunity
Asking your reference to support you in that way also allows you to coach them in certain ways to make the reference more valuable and useful.
Do you know that a prospective employer is going to ask about a particular situation or area of concern? You can ask the reference to pro-actively address that topic and help improve your odds of a good reference.
Retail & Marketing Advisor | CEO and Founder, QuerySprout
Listing someone as a reference without their permission is a mistake that you should avoid
When applying for a job, listing someone as a reference without getting their permission or informing them in advance is a mistake that you should avoid. This very act has the potential to withhold you from a callback for an interview.
There is a high likelihood that the person will write a bad reference about you instead, given the impolite behavior.
It is common courtesy to ask permission first so that they can also decide whether or not they are the best source of reference for your skills and abilities. If they think they are not, they could give you a second opinion that someone else who has worked with you would be a better option.
If you think that they are the best fit, just muster up the courage and ask them. You can try many ways to reach them. If you are not confident to ask them in person, write an official email, and present to them your plea with due respect.
You only get either a yes or a no. Good, if they agree. If they decline, just ask another person with whom you have experience working with.
Founder & CEO, VSS Monitoring
Call each of these people (or see them in person if you can) once you’ve made your wish list and ask whether they’d be willing to serve as a reference. Only use email if you absolutely have to far it’s less personal and immediate.
If you haven’t spoken to a potential reference in a while, remind them of who you are and what you worked on together, and update them on your current professional path.
Accept any hesitancy from your prospective reference graciously, thank them, and go on to the next person on your list. If you don’t want to end up with the Limp Recommendation of Death, never, ever put pressure on a reluctant reference.
Even a neutral recommendation can be seen as unfavorable by potential employers. You want your new boss to be concerned that your past bosses will crush each other for a chance to brag about how terrific you are.
Co-owner and Program Director, LA Tutors
Technically yes, but it’s not recommended
While you can list anyone you’d like as a reference, it definitely isn’t a good idea to do so without asking them for permission first.
Giving a potential reference a heads up can only benefit you by giving them time to think about how they might answer questions about your character and performance.
In fact, most potential employers go through the reference check under the assumption that you’ve already spoken to your references, so not doing so puts you at a disadvantage.
If you list someone without asking them, you have no idea if they will provide you with a positive reference which can tank an otherwise successful application. More often than not, it’s what’s left unsaid during a reference check that tells employers about an applicant’s history.
Ask permission first
Even if you’re sure that somebody will give you a stellar recommendation, it’s always best practice to ask their permission before using their contact details. A surprise call could catch them off guard, and the reference they provide might not be as useful as you would hope.
Worse still, if the person doesn’t know enough about you, you risk wasting the hiring manager’s time for arranging the phone call in the first place. If the person knows to expect a call, they can plan what they’ll say in advance – or object to the idea altogether if they have limited knowledge of your skillset.
This means that even if they’re short on time, they can share a quick, pre-prepared recommendation before carrying on with their day.
Co-founder & CEO, SINC Workforce
Do not list someone as a reference without asking them first
It is common courtesy to ask for permission before doing so. Asking permission from the person you list to be your reference will prevent them from being caught off guard when they receive a call from someone unknown. It may also hurt your application.
When asking a person’s permission, do not forget to mention what position and the company you are applying for.
This will help the person prepare and give them a rough idea of what to speak about to help you succeed in your application. Other than that, remember to choose the right references. Make sure you list articulate people who know your character, capabilities, and accomplishments.
Deb Wheatman, CPRW, CPCC
President, Careers Done Write, Inc.
Candidates should never list someone as a reference without asking them first
Nobody likes to be called out of the blue. If you do not give your reference a heads up, you are putting them in a position to make things up, not sell you as best they can, or even decline the reference.
Even if they proceed as a reference for you, you haven’t given them time to find out about the role you are applying for.
You must take the time to ask the reference for permission to list them and then explain the role you have applied for and how you will contribute to that company.
Personal Injury Attorney, 1-800 Injured
Play it safe and ask your references if it’s okay to list them
Some potential references may be offended if you use them as a reference without first obtaining their permission or at the very least telling them.
Some people may be hesitant to serve as a reference or believe that queries should be addressed to various people within the business.
If someone is upset that you did not acquire their permission or at the very least warn them, it may influence what they say in the reference. It shouldn’t, but it may happen. So, play it safe and ask your references if it’s okay to list them.
A quick phone call to your listed reference can give them advanced notice
If you’re considering someone as a reference, it’s pretty safe to assume that you have a positive personal or professional relationship with that person. This potential reference likely has great things to say about you, and won’t hesitate to give a ringing endorsement.
While you don’t necessarily have to ask for permission, it’s a good idea to let them know ahead of time.
A quick phone call to your listed reference can give them advanced notice that they should expect a call or email in the near future. It’s also a great opportunity to review details of your relationship and prepare your reference for possible questions.
For example, if this reference is a former colleague or supervisor, you may want to review the dates you’ve worked together. Use this call to refresh their memory of specific projects you’ve worked on or other details relevant to your situation.
Going over these specifics in advance will make their job easier and ensure the narrative shared by your reference matches the details in your application or resume.
You should never list someone as a reference without asking them
Even if you’ve got a good relationship with them, or maybe they mentioned it in passing but never confirmed, it isn’t a good idea. Using someone as a reference without their awareness leaves you open to getting less than glowing references, potentially costing you a job offer.
Why take the risk? Your entire application process should be about maximizing your chances to land a job.
It’s also important to make sure you receive a “yes” before including a reference. I was recently called by an employer seeking a reference for a previous employee of mine, but I wasn’t prepared at all as I had not yet seen their email.
I gave them the best reference I could, but when you’re short on details and trying to remember an employee on the spot, you can only do so much. Being unprepared also creates a hesitancy which the employer will obviously pick up on and might consider a bad sign.
Community Manager, LiveCareer
Show respect toward your reference
I wouldn’t advise you to list someone as your reference without talking to them first. First of all, it’s a thing of good manners and respect to ask people if they’re willing to be your reference or help you out.
Don’t we tell our kids to ask if they can play with their friend’s toy instead of just taking it without any permission? The same rule applies here.
On top of that, more and more of us are more cautious about our data privacy.
Personally, I don’t like it when random people contact me without any control or information of where they got my contact information. That’s why it’s fair toward your reference to ask if they agree that you give their contact information to your potential employer.
That way, they’ll know where the recruiter got their data from and will be more willing to talk to them about you as a candidate.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Use a Family Member as a Reference?
It’s generally not recommended to use a family member as a reference as it may appear unprofessional and biased. Here is why:
• Hiring managers are looking for objective and unbiased feedback on your skills and experience. If you provide a family member as a reference, it might make it seem like you don’t have professional contacts who can vouch for you.
• Family members may be unable to provide relevant feedback on your professional experience or skills because they haven’t worked with you professionally.
If you don’t have professional references, you should call on personal references such as mentors, professors, or community leaders who can speak to your character and work ethic.
Can I Use a Reference From a Volunteer Service or Internship?
Absolutely! Volunteering and internships can provide valuable experience and skills relevant to your job search. Here are some things to keep in mind:
• Be sure to select references that can validate your relevant skills and experience, even if they were acquired through volunteer service or an internship.
• Provide context for your reference, such as the name of the organization, your role, and the duties and responsibilities you had.
• Highlight any accomplishments or impact you had during your time as a volunteer or intern.
Remember to always ask your references for permission to use them as a reference and to keep them updated on your job search progress.
What if a Reference Declines My Request to Be a Reference?
It’s possible that a potential reference may decline your request, and you must respect their decision. Here are some things you should keep in mind:
Ask why they’re not comfortable being a reference: It may be a simple scheduling conflict, or the person has reservations about giving a recommendation. If it’s the latter, ask for feedback on how you can improve, so you’re better prepared in the future.
Don’t take it personally: There can be many reasons someone declines, such as being too busy or not feeling comfortable recommending a recommendation.
Keep looking for other references: It’s always a good idea to have a few backup references in case your first choice isn’t available.
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