References are an important aspect of your candidacy

Many people have the same questions when it comes to references during the job-search process. What exactly are references and referees? Should referees be included on a CV? Is "References available on request" enough? Who should I ask to be a referee? Can my employer give a bad reference?

In this guide, we'll answer your questions, alleviate your concerns and cover everything you need to know about references for your job application.

What is a reference and a referee?

Professional references are essentially testimonials about your skills and character. Employers ask for references to confirm that the details listed on your CV are an honest account of your abilities. They want to check that you can live up to expectations and that you're the right candidate for their position.

The people who will give these testimonials are called referees.

Whilst there is no standardised reference request, common questions prospective employers and hiring managers might ask your referees include:

  • How do you know this person and what is the nature of your relationship?

  • What were the dates of their employment with you?

  • Would you rehire this person?

  • What can you tell me about their character, work ethic, job responsibilities, and abilities?

  • How frequent were their absences over the last 12 months?

  • Why did they leave their role?

  • Were there any issues of misconduct?

  • Do you think they are a good fit for this position and our company?

Do I include references on a CV?

Generally, you should not list references on your CV. We wouldn't advise adding the line "References available upon request" at the end of your document either. There are three main reasons for this:

  • Asking for references is standard practice in the recruitment process. You know that you need them and prospective employers know that they will ask for them. Mentioning or including references on your CV is therefore redundant.

  • Potential employers tend to ask for references at the interview or offer stage. It's more appropriate to take your references with you on a piece of paper to the interview or email them to your interviewers after the meeting, rather than add them to your CV.

  • Including a list of references on your CV is simply a waste of space. According to best practice, you have just two pages on your CV to convince employers that you're a great fit for the job, so don't waste precious real estate on details that don't support this goal.

The only exception to this rule is if the prospective employer has specifically asked you to provide them in the early stages of the job application process. In that case, you can provide them on a separate sheet. 

How do I choose the right referees for the job?

Employers are looking for unbiased views of your character, performance, and work ethic. As a result, former bosses, colleagues and clients can all make good referees. If you are a recent school leaver or graduate writing a CV with little professional experience, you can ask lecturers, tutors, or careers advisers instead.

Avoid adding family members or friends outside of work to your reference list, as they are conflicts of interest. It defeats the point of obtaining an unbiased view from an independent source.

Generally, prospective employers will ask for two references. One of your referees should be your current or previous employer. The second is likely to be someone else who has had close contact with you in a professional environment, such as a co-worker.

How do I ask for a reference?

You need to ask someone to be your reference ‒ do not assume that you have their permission. Not only is it polite to ask if they will be your referee, but it will also give you some indication of what they may say. Plus, they will be divulging personal information about you (regulated by data protection law), so the whole process needs to be as transparent as possible.

How you ask the person will all depend on your relationship with them. If you're in regular contact, asking them face to face or on the phone is best. You can openly discuss your job hunt and the roles you're looking for, so that they know what to expect. Plus, this is the opportunity for you to thank them in advance.

If you haven't spoken to your potential referee in a while, a polite email or message may be the best way to get a conversation going.

If the person agrees to be your referee, you need to obtain their first and last name, job title, company name, and contact information - including phone number and email. It's also best to double-check with your referee how they would prefer to be contacted.

What are my workers' rights with regard to references?

On the whole, employers don't have to give you a reference. In fact, many companies have a blanket rule to say they won't give a previous employee a reference, or that it will be limited to confirming your job title and the dates of your employment.

There are some exceptions. Employers must give a reference if there was a written agreement to do so or if they are in a regulated industry, such as finance.

References must be fair and accurate and, as a job seeker, you can challenge a reference if you think it's misleading.

Can an employer give a bad reference?

There is a common misunderstanding about the term "bad reference" which we'd like to address.

If you have received a misleading or inaccurate reference, or if you lost a job offer as a result, you may be able to claim damages in court. In addition, if your employment contract says that your employer must provide references and they refuse to, or if you are sacked because you asked for a reference whilst still employed, you may also claim damages.

However, if you were terminated from your last job, or if there were issues with misconduct, your referee is within their rights to say this – providing the reference is unbiased, truthful, and can be supported with tangible evidence.

Therefore, the term !bad reference! refers to something that was inaccurate or misleading, not necessarily something that paints you in a bad light (e.g. if you were genuinely disciplined at your previous job).

If you need more advice on your workers' rights with references, reach out to your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

How do I prepare my referees to talk to an HR manager?

Whilst it's not necessary to add references to your CV, it's worth typing them up on a separate piece of paper to bring to your interview, ready to hand to the HR manager.

Your references must include a full name, current job title, and company, telephone number and email address. We also advise adding a note about the nature of your relationship for context.

Format your references in a similar style to your CV. so that they look part of the same package, even if they're not on the same page.

Here is an example of how to write your references:

Choosing the right references for your job application isn't a difficult task, but it must be handled with care and professionalism. Whilst it may be tempting to include them on your CV, we advise against it and would recommend bringing those details to your interview instead. Save the space on your CV for the details that prove you're a great match for the role.

Before an employer asks for references, your CV needs to impress. Get a free CV review to find out if yours will grab attention.

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