What to Do If You Don’t Have References for a Job

If you’re currently looking for a new job, you need to make sure that you have a strong resume and a good cover letter. The other thing that can help you land a new job is to have at least two references for prospective employers.

But what do you do if you don’t have any references?

Here’s what you need to do if you don’t have references for a job, as discussed by experts.

Pablo Listingart

Pablo Listingart

Career Development Professional | Founder, ComIT

Presenting references can be a barrier to entry for many job seekers, especially in the post-pandemic corporate landscape. Internships were cut short, entry-level roles were shed, and many professionals in the earlier end of their career are stuck with a resume gap and nowhere to turn for in-depth references.

Luckily, many job seekers are in the same boat, and there are ways for candidates to supplement their references. Below are a few considerations for job seekers who might be short on their reference list.

Coaches, training professionals, or later-stage professionals are all great substitutes

Some roles have reference requirements—they ask that the reference comes from a previous employer, a professor, or another specified authority figure. However, that’s more challenging in the post-COVID era and creates a barrier that many recruiters aren’t fully aware of.

With more people taking their classes online, professors or proctors might not have the same personal relationship with the candidate. Similarly, at-home work or internship programs, or the lack of corporate opportunity through the pandemic, can make it more challenging to ask an employer to write a personalized recommendation.

If a job seeker finds themselves in this position, they might consider widening the scope beyond the specifications of the recruitment policy and asking for a recommendation from another source.

They can include a brief note on their resume or cover letter detailing their situation and offer some reasons why the chosen reference can speak to their capacity in a well-rounded way.

Coaches, training professionals, or later-stage professionals who might have assumed a mentorship position are all great substitutes if the candidate is unable to meet the specifications.

Engage in training programs

If references aren’t an option, even with a wider scope, candidates can supplement their resumes in other ways. Engaging in training programs is a great strategy—it shows recruiting teams that the candidate is interested in their skill or niche beyond what’s required of them.

Show up to the interview with a portfolio of relevant work

Showing up to the interview with a portfolio of relevant work—self-directed coded projects or examples of landing page design—is another great way to demonstrate initiative.

Taking that extra step will not only help a candidate stand out, but it will also accomplish what recruiters are looking for from the references, which indicates that the candidate is competent for the role.

Recruiters are human, too.

The most important thing is to be upfront in your job search and begin the process with clear, truthful, and effective communication. Candidates can explain the situation their in that makes it hard for them to obtain references.

They can use that opportunity to demonstrate the kind of soft skills that recruiters are looking for:

  • articulation
  • awareness
  • problem-solving

Recruiters understand that everyone is in a hard position after the past four quarters of COVID-management. More than anything, they want to find competent and motivated workers that can contribute to the company project.

With this goal in mind, candidates can find creative and effective ways to demonstrate their aptitude—with or without references.

Anne Campbell

Anne Campbell

Global HR Advisor | Recruiter | Client Liaison Manager, DigitalGrads

Use character or academic references in place of professional ones

If you don’t have any references to give your new employer as you’re going into your first ever job, don’t worry. It’s really common to use character or academic references in place of professional ones. So, reach out to your former teachers, lecturers, or even your neighbor if you have to!

Give your ex-manager’s details

Are you worried your ex-manager will give a bad reference?

If you don’t have any references because you left your last workplace on bad terms, there should still be nothing to worry about. Give your ex-manager’s details over anyway. Your past employer has two duties when providing a reference:

  • to be fair, accurate, and true
  • to not be defamatory

References mustn’t be prepared maliciously or negligently.

This is something most employers should abide by because it can really cost them. You could claim for losses to your earnings if they lie and you lose the new job as a result, and your new employer can claim for their recruitment costs if the reference is misleadingly positive.

With this in mind, many employers prefer to keep references short and simple and only give the dates of your employment, salary, and job title.

Lauri Kinkar

Lauri Kinkar

CEO, Messente

You can provide character references who can speak about your character and morals

Hiring managers ask for references because they want to validate the information you’ve written in your CV and to know more about your character and work ethic. But what if you don’t have references for a job?

First, who qualifies as a professional reference?

They are professional contacts who have experience working with you and can verify your experience and character. They can be your supervisors, former colleagues, and clients.

However, if you are new in the workforce or you haven’t worked for a company in a long time, you may not have someone to include as a reference. Here are tips on what to do if you don’t have references for a job:

  • If you’re new in the workforce, you can ask your college professor to be your reference. Let your professor know what position you are applying for and tell them how eager you are to land the job.
  • If you are self-employed and you recently decided to work in a company you don’t own, find a client who can speak positively of you.
  • If you have not worked in a long time and you don’t have recent references, you can try finding your former colleagues on LinkedIn. Maybe you can connect with them and ask them to speak about you in a work capacity, even if you haven’t worked in the business for a while.
  • In the absence of professional references, you can provide character references who can speak about your character and morals. Such persons include your neighbors, coach, or a coordinator in a volunteer work you’ve done.
  • Explain why you can’t provide references and tell the hiring manager how much you want the job. You can ask for a chance to show him/her that you are the right person for the job. The hiring manager may put you on a probation period, and you should do your best to prove that you’re the right hiring choice.

Dimitris Tsapis

Dimitris Tsapis

Head of HR, Coara

Prove that you have relevant transferable skills for the position that you are applying to

Catch the reader’s attention from the start; do not write basic and boring intros. In sales, if you get a good first touch, the whole thing has better chances of converting. You have to stand out from the rest of the applicants, so start with an attention-grabbing intro.

You can write a great no-experience resume by putting the focus on your education instead. Be sure to include:

  • a personalized header
  • your education (both standard and extracurricular)
  • technical and soft skills

One can also include relevant internships, projects, and volunteer work.

Before writing the resume, do in-depth research—simply reading the job requirements and somewhat matching them does not make you stand out. When building up your resume, understand the company itself and what they are really looking for (beyond descriptions and requirements).

Tailor your resume to the specific position that you are interested in—don’t use a bland template. Then use this to make a tailored resume to the specific company and position. Having done good research also means you can connect with the HR manager (who will read your application) or the founder/CEO who will make the final decision.

It’s all about understanding that the goal of a resume is to get to the next step—the Interview. Usually, no one will hire somebody only by reading their resume.

Don’t overcomplicate things; instead:

  • Prove that you have relevant transferable skills that are useful for the position that you are applying to
  • Showcase prior relevant experience and achievements (it can be outside of your professional work experience)
  • Write in an enthusiastic but self-respectful manner
  • Show that you are the one they are looking for

As I said – The overall goal of writing a great resume is to get an interview. Therefore, you should include some type of a call to action that indicates your willingness and expectation to receive an interview. By doing so, you won’t come over as pushy but rather confident in your abilities to take the position.

Jagoda Wieczorek

Jagoda Wieczorek

HR Manager, ResumeLab

Ask your former work colleagues and teammates if they would be willing to vouch for you

Well, it’s essential that you get (at least) one. Rest assured that if your interview process goes well, your (potential) future employer will request at least one reference or most likely 2-3.

Ideally, at least one of them would come from your former supervisor. Things don’t always work out like that, though. If you have very limited experience or things did not go so well at the previous workplace, look elsewhere.

As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to use family members or friends as your references. Obviously, they’ll be very biased and skewed in your favor, effectively rendering them useless. Instead, cast a wider net.

For starters, instead of the boss, ask your former (work) colleagues and teammates if they would be willing to vouch for you. Furthermore, especially for those still in universities and grad school, your professors are a viable and impressive option too.

Similarly, you should be definitely asking your supervisors or leaders of any clubs, organizations, or associations you’re a part of. This could range very widely from your weekly volunteering at the local shelter to asking the head of your local Toastmasters chapter for a recommendation.

As a final option, you can tap into your coaches, mentors, or religious leaders. Here the slope becomes slippery, but as long as you were initially strangers, they can attest to your work ethic and transferable skills; they can be a viable option too.

Therefore, with little creativity, everyone should be able to put together 2-3 solid references in a short period of time.

Chris Gadek

Chris Gadek

Vice President of Growth, AdQuick

If you are struggling to pull in a reference for a new job position, you have a few options.

Ask your peers or colleagues from work who know your work ethic

Expand on your current search. Many times, people say that they do not have references, but that is because they have a narrow idea of who to ask.

Although getting a reference from your manager or supervisor would be ideal, if you have peers or colleagues from work who know your work ethic, that would work perfectly fine.

You don’t need the utmost amazing references because, in reality, your resume should speak for itself.

Revamp your resume

With that said, revamp your resume—this is the most important thing you can do if you don’t have references. Being able to sell yourself solely from your resume makes it so much easier to catch the job.

Let it speak for itself and promise your employer that you can impress with the skills you possess on your own.

Alan Harder

Alan Harder

Mortgage Broker, AlanHarder.ca

Find someone who can attest to your abilities and qualifications

Employers want to learn more about you before considering you for a position on their team. Once your resume has intrigued their interest, you might be asked to include one or more references.

If you don’t have any formal references, you will usually find someone who can attest to your abilities and qualifications. Professional and personal references for a work application are people who can vouch for your character, skills, and experience.

When someone serves as a reference for you, they provide a letter of recommendation or contact information so that hiring managers may inquire about your background, skills, and character.

On your resume, there is no need to provide a reference.

Once an employer is interested in learning more about you as a potential employee, they may request one or more references. To demonstrate your preparedness, have a list of references ready to give the employer as soon as they inquire.

If you’re a recent graduate, you’re not likely to have a list of former employers to use as references. Your only work experience can be a summer job or a part-time job, whether you just graduated from high school or college.

Find an academic contact or a close character reference outside of a professional environment

Find an academic contact or a close character reference outside of a professional environment if you’re applying for a job and the employer requests references.

When you begin your first career step, ask your favorite professor or coach if they can serve as a reference. Describe the role you’re applying for and why you’re interested in it. They’ll most likely be delighted to assist you by writing a letter or sharing their contact details with your potential employer.

Jacques Buffet

Jacques Buffett

Career Expert, Zety

It’s no secret that most employers will want to get to know you better before extending a job offer. To do it, companies will ask you to provide one or multiple professional references that will vouch for you. But if you don’t have references available at your fingertips yet, don’t despair.

Reach out to your professors and ask them if they could be your references

If you’re a recent grad, you can provide an academic contact that’s outside of a professional setting. Reach out to your favorite professors and ask them if they could be your references to help you jumpstart your career.

Ask one of your trusted clients to speak on your behalf as a reference

If you do have some experience under your belt, but you don’t have any references because you’ve been self-employed, ask one of your trusted clients to speak on your behalf as a reference.

Satya Parija

Satya Parija

Co-Founder & CMO, DoctorSpring

People in your social circle with professional backgrounds are good substitutes

Academic references and people in your social circle with professional backgrounds are frequently good substitutes for professional references. Former professors and teachers will be able to vouch for your work ethic while teaching you, which can demonstrate relevant skills you possess to employers, while people in your social circle will be able to vouch for your character.

If these aren’t within your realm of possibility, explain why you can’t provide any references to back up your character and skills. Perhaps you haven’t been at a job long enough to form bonds with coworkers, or something happened in your previous workplace that was so bad that your former boss wouldn’t recommend you.

Whatever the case may be, admit your mistakes in previous jobs without shifting blame or making excuses, and make it clear that you’re moving forward with a plan to become a better employee in the future.

Brian Dechesare

Brian DeChesare

Founder, Breaking Into Wall Street

If you’re struggling to find any references, it’s time to start networking

For job searchers with no relevant job experience, it’s time to dig deep and find some excellent personal or academic references.

  • Did you have a professor you hit it off with at school?
  • Or a manager in an unrelated field that can vouch for your excellent soft skills?

Soft skills are interchangeable among different fields, so they’re a great place to focus for most newbies.

If you’re struggling to find any references at all, it’s time to start networking. The easiest way to reach out is through a professional digital network, like LinkedIn. Many established professionals are glad to offer some advice and friendship – be kind, not pushy in your ask.

If a relationship develops naturally, you can ask for a reference. Use your best judgment here.

For a character reference, you can ask just about anyone who knows you well. Think of a close friend’s parent, an old coach, or a trusted neighbor. Try to choose someone well-spoken who will be able to articulate your skills and values best.

Arthur Iinuma

Arthur Iinuma

President, ISBX

Ask your group leaders

If you have no formal job references, you can look outside the work environment for possible candidates. Think about any groups you were active in. This could be:

  • a church choir
  • the boy scouts
  • a voluntary organization

If you made a good impression in this group, reach out to the leader and ask them for a reference. Although they may not be able to speak about your professional skills, they can still attest to your character and work ethic, which can be just as important.

Prepare your portfolio

Employers want to know what you’re capable of, so if you have a portfolio of your work, this can make up for the fact that you have no references. Research what kind of work your target company requires and showcase your most relevant samples.

If your work is non-visual, create case studies that show you would approach a project. To really impress your employer, present your portfolio online using a DIY website builder.

Cath Garcia

Cath Garcia

HR Manager, Skill Success

Find people outside your workplace to vouch for your performance and personality

It is always helpful that you have prepared a list of several professional contacts to back you up on your application. References on a resume provide proof and evidence of your value as an employee. Employers can authenticate your professional history and background information for them to know if you are a good fit for the position and the company.

But what if you do not have a list of references for a job?

First, you should find someone who is qualified as your professional reference. These are people who have experienced working with you. They can either be colleagues, former employers, vendors, and clients.

You can also find people outside your workplace to vouch for your performance and personality, e.g., teachers and community groupmate. You should ask their permission to make them your professional reference.

It is an unethical practice to put anyone in your professional reference without their knowledge.

There are many things to consider in choosing who you will include in your reference list. Pick people or professionals who know how you work and who can expound your expertise, skills, and knowledge. They should be capable of speaking nice things about you.

Brittany Dolin

Brittany Dolin

Co-Founder, Pocketbook Agency

The truth is, even if you think you don’t have references for a job, you probably do.

Perhaps you could be in a situation where you feel like you do not have references that relate specifically to the job you’re going for, but this does not necessarily mean that there are no people who would speak well in your favor.

Strategize and think about who would speak highly of you and in what regard

Whether you’ve just gotten out of school and do not have much work experience or whether you are switching career paths, take the time to strategize and think about who would speak highly of you and in what regard. Once you have that sorted out, this can be helpful for when you actually ask these people to serve as your references.

For instance, if you are asking your English college professor to be a reference when you apply for a personal assistant position, you can explain that the job requires strong communication skills. Make sure to express enthusiasm and gratitude when you make the ask so that the reference will feel good about fulfilling the request.

If you do not ask confidently because you are already worried that this reference would be too unrelated to the target job, the reference may sense your doubts and, subsequently, he or she may not feel as hopeful in serving as your reference.

Remember that positivity is contagious. Even without references that relate exactly to whatever job you’re going for, you can make it work with clever strategy, a resourceful mindset, and an optimistic attitude.

Dorota Lysienia

Dorota Lysienia

Community Manager, LiveCareer

Focus on transferable skills

My tip for job-seekers who don’t have references for a job is to focus on their transferable skills. The key lies in identifying your unique abilities useful for different positions. If you’re thinking of changing industries, give specific examples of how the skills you gained at your previous jobs can be applied to the new role.

By doing so, you will show your potential employer that you’re motivated to transfer what you’ve learned in your previous jobs to a new position.

Also, make sure to list any additional initiatives you undertook to benefit you in the recruitment process. Did you take part in a course or workshop to gain new skills and knowledge? It’s a good idea to list it in your resume and discuss it in more detail in your cover letter or later in an interview.

Use networking to strengthen your application documents

Last but not least, don’t underestimate the power of networking and valuable connections. Use networking to strengthen your application documents and get ahead of your competition.

Due to the pandemic and remote work, most of the things related to job search and recruitment have been moved online. As employers often don’t get a chance to see you in person, any additional recommendations from their employees or business partners greatly impact your hiring chances.

Related: The 7 Best Skills for Remote Work and How to Add Them to Your Resume

Nicole Graham

Nicole Graham

Lifestyle/Relationship Coach, Womenio

Get people to write you a great LinkedIn recommendation

The simplest way of getting people to write you a great LinkedIn recommendation is to write them one first. Both the ones you send and the ones you receive are visible on your LinkedIn profile.

Related: LinkedIn Headline Advice & Examples for Job Seekers

To put your recommendation in context, you should mention specific group projects or skills. Write a few thoughtful recommendations for coworkers or recent classmates, then send a message asking for one in return.

Most employers will conduct an online search before inviting you for an interview, so LinkedIn is an excellent resource to use. Employers value LinkedIn recommendations because they provide insight into what others think of you. That is also the basic concept of a professional reference!

Employers may be satisfied with the information on your LinkedIn profile and not seek out more if you have several good recommendations.

Ho Lin

Ho Lin

Content Strategist, MyPerfectResume

You can get references from a teacher, mentor, sports coach, or leader in your community

If you’re applying to your first job and you don’t know what to include under “references,” first know that leaving this space blank can do more harm than adding at least one name, even if it’s not from a previous employer.

Through your references, recruiters can find out more about your past experiences, work ethic, skills, your personality, and they ultimately want to know if you would be a good fit for the company.

So if you don’t have any work experience, think of people that can vouch for you in similar areas a former employer would. You can get references from a teacher, mentor, sports coach, or leader in your community.

Make sure the references highlight the most relevant skills to the job you are applying for and align to the requirements stated in the job description.

Dana Case

Dana Case

Director of Operations, MyCorporation.com

Ask a manager from an internship you completed

I think it is incredibly important to have at least two to three individuals that can act as your references before applying for a job. Before conducting a thorough job search or starting a job hunt, go through your contacts to see who may be able to act as your references.

Talk to them beforehand to ensure that they are able to speak on your behalf and know to anticipate a call from a potential recruiter or HR rep. The references themselves may be anyone from previous coworkers to former bosses.

If you do not have previous employers, consider asking a manager from an internship you completed, the lead from volunteer work that you do, or even a client from a side hustle you run to be your reference.

Once you have a few solid references handy, you’ll feel more prepared about going into the job hunt.

Frequently Asked Questions 

How can I build a strong professional network to get references in the future?

Building a strong professional network takes time and effort. Here are some strategies to help you get started:

LinkedIn: Create and maintain a current LinkedIn profile, and engage with your contacts and industry groups.

Industry events: Attend conferences, workshops, and seminars to meet like-minded professionals and expand your network.

Alumni Associations: Reach out to your school’s alumni association to connect with former classmates and professionals in your field.

Informational interviews: Request informational interviews with professionals in your field to learn more about their roles and make new contacts.

Can I use a letter of recommendation instead of a job reference?

While a letter of recommendation can be valuable, it is usually not a direct substitute for a job reference. Employers often prefer to speak directly with your references to ask specific questions, clarify details, and get a more up-to-date assessment of your skills and performance.

However, you can provide a letter of recommendation in addition to your references, especially if it is from a relevant and reputable source.

In some cases where you lack professional references, a strong letter of recommendation can help strengthen your application.

Always check with your potential employers to see what they prefer regarding references and letters of recommendation.

What if my former employer has a policy against providing references?

Some companies have strict policies that prohibit their employees from providing references. If this is the case, consider the following alternatives:

Human Resources verification: Ask your former employer’s HR department for a written statement confirming your dates of employment and job title.

Colleagues who have left the company: Reach out to former colleagues who have left the company and are not bound by the same policy.

Alternative professional references: Look for other professional contacts from internships, freelance work, or volunteer activities that can serve as references.

How can I ask someone to be my reference?

When you ask someone to be your reference, ensure you ask them in advance and give them enough time to prepare. You can ask them if they are willing to provide a job reference and if they have time to discuss your work experience and skills.

After getting their approval, you should present them with your resume, cover letter, and job description to inform them about the position you are applying for.

When asking for a job reference, keep the following in mind:
Timing: Give your potential reference at least two weeks to prepare.
Method of contact: You can contact them by phone, email, or in person.
Thank them: After your potential reference has made a recommendation, be sure to thank them for their time and effort.

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