Writing Your CV’s References Section: Your Questions Answered

Illustration of a closeup of a person's hand holding a CV references document over a desk

Whether you’ve set out to write your first CV or you’re updating your existing one for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that has come your way, I’m sure you agree that writing a CV is no walk in a park. It’s more like an obstacle course in the jungle.

From writing your career summary to listing your most relevant experience in your employment history (in reverse chronological order, of course), it’s just one difficult section after the next, and you finally feel relief when you reach the references section. Trouble is: it’s just as tricky as its predecessors.

But not to worry! Here we answer your most pressing questions to help you create an impressive references section for your CV!

1. When should I include references on my CV?

Whether or not references should even be included on a CV has been the subject of much debate.

One camp argues that it simply wastes valuable space that can be put to better use by providing evidence of your skills and achievements rather than information that employers don’t usually require upfront. They also warn that it’s an outdated practice.

However, it all boils down to personal choice and what is appropriate for your particular situation. For example, if you have little to no professional experience showcase (and, therefore, little content to put on your CV), including references can be a great way to fill up some space.

Generally speaking, you should include references if:

  • They’re requested in the job description
  • You have space to include them in your CV
  • You got referred to the job from a company contact
  • Your references are prominent industry leaders
  • They’re customarily required in your field

2. Do employers even contact references?

Yes, they do. That is if you’re being seriously considered for the role.

Some employers will call all the references you’ve listed, while others will only reach out to the ones most relevant to the job you’ve applied for. You may even be asked to provide additional references, but not many hiring managers will bother wasting their time on something you should have perfected in the first place – so it’s important that you get your references section right!

3. Who should I use as a reference?

It’s important to be strategic when choosing the people who will act as your referees. They don’t have to be your current coworkers or managers (especially if they don’t know that you’re job-hunting), but they do have to be people who have known you in a professional capacity and who can attest to your skills, qualifications and value as an employee.

Former and current employers, supervisors, coworkers, subordinates, business contacts and even clients carry the most weight, as they can provide potential employers with an unbiased view of your work ethic and performance. You can also include references from part-time roles, internships, volunteer work and paid work experience (like a babysitting gig, for example).

Meanwhile, if you’re new to the workforce and don’t have any valuable professional experience, former schoolteachers, coaches and university lecturers who can attest to your character and abilities all make excellent reference choices.

Whatever you do, however, do not list family or friends – no matter how professional your relationship is with your mother or BFF! You should also avoid using references that may be controversial, like counsellors, clergy or social workers.

4. How can I ask someone to be a reference?

To begin with, it’s important to contact potential references first before applying to any jobs and allow them time to consider your request. If you haven’t been in touch with them in a while, spend some time recapping what you have been up to and briefing them on any important career highlights that they should know about. It might also be necessary to reacquaint yourselves, especially if your prospective referee has not heard from you in some time.

Once you’re ready to ask them to be your reference, form your question in a polite manner, like so: ‘Would you be comfortable to act as a professional reference for me?’. If they accept, then make sure to confirm their contact details as well as their job title before adding them to your CV as a reference. You could also use LinkedIn to confirm job titles, name spellings and other information.

5. How can I prepare my referees?

If you think that simply asking referees to put in a good word for you is good enough, think again.

For them to actually put in a good word for you and highlight your best skills and most positive character traits to potential employers, it’s a good idea to share copies of your CV and cover letter with them. It’s equally important to mention the role you’re applying for and share the job description with them, as well as specify the key skills and achievements you’d like them to highlight.

Also, although you’ve (hopefully) asked for their permission to put them down as references, it’s good practice to update them when you’ve applied for a job so that they’re not caught off guard when a recruiter gets in touch with them.

6. How many references should I add to my CV?

It’s a good idea to prepare a master list of 10 or more references, organised into categories. Then, you can select the most appropriate ones for a specific job.

Typically, you should include at least three references who can vouch for your professional credibility and qualifications. If you’re applying for a more senior position, however, consider listing between five to seven references.

On that note, some employers may ask for a specific number of references as part of the job description’s requirements. Make sure that you meet these requirements to the T – in other words, don’t include fewer (or more, for that matter) than the specified number!

Remember: references should be varied (ie: they shouldn’t all be from the same company), and they should be tailored for each job.

7. Where should I place the references section?

Your references should be placed at the end of your CV under a heading titled ‘References’. If you’re short on space, you can replace referees’ details with ‘References available upon request’ (though it should be noted that many experts argue that this simply wastes valuable real estate).

Alternatively, you can remove this section altogether from your CV and instead create a separate document listing all the people who have agreed to vouch for you. If you choose this option, make sure that you include a header at the top of the page with your name and contact information, and that you use a similar design to the one used on your CV (this includes using the same typefaces and font sizes, for example). Don’t forget to title the page ‘References’, ‘Reference List’ or ‘References for John Smith’ so that there’s no doubt what the names on the list are for.

8.  How should I format my references?

When listing your references, you need to include the following information for each referee:

  • Their full name (including any titles and post-nominal letters they prefer to use)
  • Their job title
  • The name of the company/organisation they work for
  • The company’s address
  • Their direct telephone number(s)
  • Their email address
  • Their relationship to you (a short sentence like ‘Mr Smith was my supervisor at Company ABC’)

Make sure that all the information listed is current and that names are spelt correctly to avoid a hiring manager embarrassing themselves by calling a referee and asking for Jane when, actually, their name is John.

It’s also important to be consistent and to provide the same information for all references. For example, if you don’t include the address for one reference, make sure that you skip it for the others, too. (Don’t forget to ask referees who have agreed to vouch for you if there is any information they don’t want listed.)

Here’s a great example of a well-written references section, as illustrated on one of our very own CV templates:

Graphic designer CV sample with highlighted references section

As you can see from this CV sample, the references consistently display all key contact information along with a brief explanation of the candidate’s relationship with each referee.

On a side note, if you have any high-profile or influential references, make sure they’re listed first!

9. When should I supply my references?

If you’re submitting a separate document, the general rule of thumb is to wait for your recruiters to ask for your references before submitting them.

Employers will typically ask for this information at the final stage of the hiring process, either when they’ve formally extended a job offer or when you’ve been shortlisted for the position. Meanwhile, some employers will ask for references early on in the process.

On that note, it’s a good idea to bring copies of your list of references to the interview if you haven’t already included them on your CV. You’ll make a far better impression if you hand over your references on the spot if you’re asked for them, than saying you’ll email them over later.

10. What if I get a bad reference?

One of the biggest employment myths is that employers aren’t legally allowed to provide employees with a bad reference. However, if the reference is accurate, regardless if it is damaging to you, there’s nothing you can do about it. But, if you believe – and can prove – that a reference is unfair or inaccurate and you have ‘suffered a loss’ (ie: a job offer was withdrawn), you may be able to challenge it and claim damages in a court.

To avoid all of this, make sure to select references you trust and that you have good relationships with. If you left your previous job on bad terms, then it’s wiser to avoid including your last manager as a contact. Alternatively, try to communicate with them first, before determining whether to include them in your references list at all.

11. How can I follow up with referees?

This is the easy part – and something that you should always do.

Your referees will have taken valuable time out of their busy schedules to vouch for you, so the least you can do is send them a quick email or, if you prefer, an old-fashioned letter thanking them for putting in a good word for you – regardless of whether or not you land the job.

References can play a key role to your job application success! Before an employer makes up their mind about whether to hire you or not, they may want to hear first-hand testimonials about your professionalism, skills and character from people who have worked with you in the past. Therefore, it’s important to pick your referees wisely, and create an impressive references section in your CV.

Got any other questions about writing your CV’s references section? Let us know in the comments section below!

Meanwhile, if you’re struggling to write your CV, why not get in touch with one of our CV experts who can help you create a job-winning document that highlights your biggest achievements and most valuable skills.


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 8 December 2017 and was written in collaboration with staff writer Melina Theodorou.