Professional references are a crucial part of a solid hiring strategy. Contacting a reference gives hiring managers important information from people who know your value and understand how you will perform at your next role.

These are people who can be honest about your successes, abilities, learning capacity, and even limitations. And all that information is highly important to a company when they’re making final hiring decisions.

Knowing who to ask to be your professional reference can be a difficult task. Here are a few tips on who to call when an employer requests references.

Your college mentor

If you’re a young professional, finding references might not be the easiest thing in the world. An unfortunate part of internship culture is that many companies don’t provide the best work experience for their interns. If you were stuck with a mediocre internship in college, you might hesitate to list that former manager as a reference.

One person you can list is your college mentor. Even if it’s not a formal relationship, there’s a great chance that you did have a mentor in your college years. That mentor is the one professor you may have talked to on a regular basis. You may have asked them for advice, worked with them on a research project or two, assisted them in office hours, or collaborated with them through student government or extracurricular clubs.

Whether you realize it or not, that professor knows a whole lot about how you work, how you learn, and how valuable you can be to an organization. So figure out who that one person was in your college life and reach out to them. You’ll find that, if you had a good relationship during your education, they’ll be more than willing to stand as a reference.

Your former manager

No one knows your capabilities and limitations better than your former manager. And if you have a strong relationship with them and left on good terms, it’s important that you reach out and ask them to be your professional reference. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a manager from your immediate past role, and can be someone from earlier in your career.

A former manager can provide an employer great insight into your work style, how you take on responsibility, how you respond to hardship, and how you react to mistakes. This information can give a hiring manager a strong perspective on how you would perform on their team. They’ll understand how you respond to authority, the depth of your leadership capabilities, and whether you’re a teachable employee.

And those three things are crucial to standing out. So if your former manager can give good feedback on your behalf, be sure to ask them for a reference. It can be the most valuable piece of feedback a hiring manager gets.

A satisfied client

Another person you can ask for a reference is a satisfied client. If you deal with clients on a daily basis as part of your work, it's likely that they know exactly the type of value you can bring to any organization. Especially telling is the fact that you’re bringing them value, despite not being a part of their team.

So if you have a client that’s willing to sing your praises, go ahead and ask them to be your reference. They can provide hiring managers with perspective on how you interact with others. This is especially useful for roles that require a lot of relationship building, such as sales, account management, customer success, or marketing.

Using a satisfied client as a reference gives the hiring manager information on how you will interact with their clients. And since satisfied, paying clients are the lifeblood of any business, a person who knows how to treat them can become a great hire.


A fellow co-worker

This one’s a bit more controversial, and you’ll hear a ton of advice saying never to ask a co-worker for a reference. But if you’re short on options and know that you can unequivocally trust the individual to keep your job search confidential, you should ask them to be a reference.

A co-worker knows your work habits on a day to day basis. They see you grinding out a task, finishing up a project in a clutch manner, and working overtime hours to put that little bit of extra effort that creates killer results. They see the results of your work and how those results impact their own projects. As a result, they can provide perspective on how you work in collaboration and how reliable you are as a teammate.

As a result, they can sing your praises when a hiring manager comes asking about your potential effectiveness on their team.

Keep in mind that if you have any doubts about the person’s ability to keep your job search a secret, you should find someone else.

Your former employee

A potential reference to keep in mind, especially if you’re looking for leadership roles, is a former employee that you managed and mentored. This can be that one person on your team that you took under your wing as the highest-potential employee. Or it can be a happy former employee that knows your value as a leader and manager.

Former employees give hiring managers insight into how you lead and how you delegate. Part of how they decide on the best candidate for a leadership role is by analyzing how they’ve performed in leadership roles in the past. Happy former employees will show them that you know how to manage a team. They’ll show that you set out tasks intelligently, solve problems efficiently, and know how to micromanage (and when not to).

If you want a role as a manager, your best possible reference for your leadership qualities will be someone you managed in the past. Take the time to find that someone from your previous roles that can vouch for you.

The right list of professional references will provide hiring managers with different pieces of important information that paint a picture of you as a consummate, reliable professional. So find those people in your life that can vouch for your value. And if you land the job, share the news and your gratitude with them.

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