Potential employers want to verify previous work experience, skills, and credentials of applicants before making job offers. Part of the way they do this is to ask for three references who are familiar with applicants’ work and abilities. Many job seekers may be thinking “But I don’t have three references.”
Employers ask for work references and may want to speak to previous direct supervisors. These are the best references to have if possible. Ideally, you should have a letter of recommendation from a reference and consent from the reference to be contacted.
It’s not always easy to get references who are willing to talk with potential employers. Many employers have a policy of not letting managers speak about employees to limit liability.
Some applicants may not have any formal work references at all.
Preparing the References You Need
What if you’re thinking “I don’t have three references” when asked by an employer? There are ways to get references for a potential employer when you are applying and interviewing. Start by thinking about the job you are interviewing for and the company.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends job seekers not keep a static list of employment references. Don’t limit yourself to only a few references you have, especially if they are 10 years old or older. Make sure your references are relevant and recent whenever possible.
LinkedIn is a good place to find potential new references through connections. Research the hiring manager or recruiter on LinkedIn. Look to see if your colleagues or friends are connected to the hiring manager or someone in the potential employer company. If there are connections, ask them to provide a reference.
Although employers may ask for former managers as references, don’t limit yourself to these. Think of strong working relationships you have developed during your work history. Did you mentor or train any younger employees? Did you lead any teams or work on special projects with colleagues? These connections may be excellent sources for references to speak to your skills and work ethics.
Don’t forget about personal references. Volunteer connections, teachers, and community contacts who can discuss your work and time with them can provide valuable references. They can discuss how you work as well as discuss your personality, passion, and purpose.
Consider a variety of references that can provide a picture of you as a whole person, not just your work skills.
Previous Supervisors and Co-Workers
If you think “I don’t have three references,” remember previous supervisors and co-workers make good work references. They have worked with you, seen your skills, and know your experience. It’s well worth it to ask them to be a reference.
You may feel funny about asking former supervisors or co-workers to provide a reference. But remind them of your working relationship and how important it was to you. If they hesitate, offer to write a reference letter yourself for them to revise if they want and/or sign for you.
Also consider former clients if you worked in a role serving clients. Especially if you worked with prestigious clients or on important client projects. If you received recognition for client work you should consider asking for a client reference.
The ideal way to get references from supervisors and co-workers is to ask before you leave. When you voluntarily leave a job under good circumstances, make sure to ask for references. Ask for written references and reference contacts to use for future job searches.
Staying connected with former bosses and co-workers is well worth it. When you have a good working relationship, you can both provide valuable work references for each other.
How to Decide Who to Use as a Reference
When you need references, you need to consider what types of references there are. Work-related references, character references, and academic references are the three main kinds of references. They are not interchangeable, but you may not always have the exact kind for your situation.
You may think “I don’t have three references.” However, work-related references are the most common and usually the most relevant. They can discuss how you work in a work setting, your behavior, your background, and your work habits. Current and former bosses and co-workers are common work references.
Character references may be considered if you have too few or no work references. Long-time friends, clients, or other contacts who know you personally can discuss your positive traits. Some employers may not favor character references but they can be persuasive.
Academic references can be valuable especially for recent graduates with little work experience. Professors, classmates, advisors, and counselors can give employers insight into your work ethic and values.
When deciding who to use as a reference, how long you have known them is important. Those with whom you have a long-term, close relationship can provide better feedback than casual acquaintances. It’s also important to think about (or even ask them) what they might say when called and asked about you. You want to use those contacts who have a high regard for you and your work.
Networking for Work References
Don’t forget about your networks when you need work references. Professional networks can be a valuable resource for job seekers. Your networks help you get the word out when you are looking for a job and promote your work and capabilities.
Your networks can include:
- Business contacts
- Fellow volunteers and volunteer organizations
- Religious and political leaders and groups
Keep in touch with those in your network. Be sure not to discount volunteer community work and work with religious or social groups. They can provide valuable references as well.
Networking is not an instant way to get a new job. But it is a way to meet people with similar interests and let them know about your career plans. And it’s a good way to build relationships and offering to help others. Also, don’t forget that you can network at venues that aren’t formal networking events.
Does the dog rescue that you follow and support have any fundraiser events? Think about how you can network there. Do you go to a weekly exercise or yoga class? Are you talking to people there and getting to know them? What about a bowling or volleyball league? That’s a fun and casual way to get to know people with similar interests that may turn into valuable reference resources.
In the course of helping others at networking events or enjoying a class, you may find the opportunity to ask for references. As others get to know you better, and interact with you, common career discussions can lead to mutual appreciation and career help.
Can You Get a Job Without References?
If you’re looking at a job posting and thinking “I don’t have three references,” don’t let that stop you. Go ahead and apply to the job even if you are sure you have no references. There are ways to get a job without references.
Polish Your Resume
When you don’t have any references, your resume becomes even more important than it already is. Make sure your resume and cover letter are exceptional and stand out to employers. They should be professional, without any spelling or grammatical errors.
Customize your resume and cover letter to the job, including the objective or goal statement. Make sure your resume is formatted to be easily scanned into employer databases and applicant tracking systems. Keep your resume to one to two pages.
Be sure to include a cover letter where you can relate your skills and abilities to the job requirements. Customize your cover letters to the different jobs you are applying for and include keywords from the job posting. Match the formatting on your cover letter to your resume.
Advance Your Interview Skills
When you don’t have references, your interview skills become even more important. Consider practicing job interviews with friends or family. A career coach can be a valuable way to improve your interviewing skills.
- Be aware of your body language – don’t put your hands in your pockets, slouch, or cross your arms. Dress appropriately for the interview – ask about the company’s dress code if possible.
- Listen well and don’t talk to much – if you get nervous, practice a lot before the interview until you are comfortable.
- Make sure you are answering the interviewer’s questions.
- Don’t be arrogant or desperate.
- 7 Tips To Impress an Interviewer in 30 Seconds
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It’s important to remember not to provide references unless asked. It’s not necessary to put “References available on request” in your resume. If an employer wants you to provide references, they will ask. You can discuss then if you don’t have references, and what alternatives may be accepted.
If you get to the stage where references are requested and you absolutely have none, ask what else could make them comfortable hiring you. Emphasize your skills and experience and desire for the job.
Additionally, ask if could work on a probationary or freelance basis to prove your work ethic and value as an employee.