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’s how to write that nasty references section on your CV.
1. Should You Include References at All?
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 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 They also warn that it’s an outdated practice.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 to brag about (and, therefore, little content to put on your CV), including references can be a great way to make it look less empty.
2. Do Employers Even Contact Them?
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 they believe are the most relevant to the job and the company. You may even be asked to provide additional or better 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 it right!
3. Who Should You Use as References?
When it comes to who to use as references on your CV, it’s important that you’re strategic and targeted with the people you choose to act as referees. They don’t have to be people you work with at your current job (especially if they don’t know you’re job searching) but they do have to be people who have known you in a professional or personal capacity and who can attest to your skills, qualifications and value as an employee.
Generally speaking, former and current employers, supervisors, co-workers, 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. Professional references can be selected from part-time or full-time jobs, internships or volunteer and paid work experiences (like a babysitting gig, for example).
Meanwhile, if you’re new to the workforce and don’t have any valuable professional experience (you’re a recent school leaver, for example), former school teachers, coaches and university lecturers who can attest to your character and abilities all make excellent choices.
Whatever you do, though, 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 concern an employer or that may be controversial, like counsellors, clergy or social workers.
Make sure that you ask references for their permission first before you share their contact information with potential employers. It shows respect and helps you determine how likely they are to provide a positive reference.
4. How Can You Prepare 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. Equally important is to explain what job you’re applying for and send them the job description, as well as mention any key skills and achievements you’d like them to highlight.
Also, although you’ve (hopefully) asked for their permission to use them as references, it’s good practice to let them know when you’ve applied for a job so that they’re not caught off guard by an enquiry from a potential employer.
5. How Many References Should You Add?
It’s a good idea to prepare a master list of 10 or more references, organised into categories, from which to pull the most appropriate to provide for a specific job.
Typically, you should have at least three references on your CV who can vouch for your professional credibility and qualifications. If you’re applying for a more senior position, though, you may consider listing a minimum of five 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 number specified!
Remember: references should be varied (i.e. they shouldn’t all be from the same company), and they should be tailored for each job.
6. Where Should You Put Them?
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.
7. How Should You Format Your References?
When listing your references, you need to include the following information for each referee:
- Full name (including any titles and post-nominal letters they prefer to use)
- Job title
- Company/organisation name
- Telephone numbers
- 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. On that note, use LinkedIn to confirm job titles, spelling and other details, or contact referees directly for anything you need clarification on.
It’s also important that you are consistent and 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:
On a side note, if you have any high-profile or influential references, make sure they’re listed first!
8. When Should You Supply Your References?
If you’re submitting a separate document or have included the phrase ‘References available upon request’ on your CV, the general rule of thumb is to wait until you’re asked for references before you supply 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. Few employers will ask for references early on in the process, but that doesn’t mean it is uncommon.
On that note, it’s a good idea to bring copies of your list of references to the interview if you haven’t already provided them on your CV. After all, you’ll make a far better impression by handing over your references on the spot if you’re asked for them than saying you’ll email them over later.
9. What If You Get a Bad Reference?
One of the biggest employment myths is that employers aren’t legally allowed to provide employees with a bad reference. As long as the reference is accurate, no matter how damaging it is to you, there’s nothing really 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’ (e.g. a job offer was withdrawn), you may be able to challenge it and claim damages in a court.
10. How Can You Follow Up with Referees?
This is the easy part – and something that should be done, no matter what.
Not only have your referees taken valuable time out of their busy schedules but they also put their reputation on the line 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.
Got any other questions about writing the references section of your CV? Join the conversation down below and let us know!
Don’t forget to check out our comprehensive guide on how to write a CV for every stage of your career.