Before you begin searching for your winning reference, you should be aware that there is a significant difference between a professional reference and a character reference. Your professional referee confirms your previous experiences, level of expertise and work ethic. This should come from your former managers, colleagues or any other professional connection.

Shortlisting Referees

Selecting referees is a critical step in enhancing your professional profile. It’s more than just picking names; it’s about choosing advocates who can convincingly speak to your abilities. This process requires careful thought and a strategic approach.

Begin by identifying individuals who have closely observed your professional journey. These may include past supervisors, colleagues, or mentors. The ideal referee is someone who has first-hand knowledge of your skills, work ethic, and achievements. They should be able to provide specific examples of your contributions and strengths.

Consider the relevance of each potential referee to your current career goals. For example, if you’re pursuing a leadership role, a previous manager who has seen you lead a team would be ideal. If you’re leaning towards a research-focused position, an academic mentor or a colleague from a relevant project could provide more meaningful insights.

Diversity in your referee selection can offer a broader perspective on your professional capabilities. A mix of senior professionals, peers, and even mentees can paint a more comprehensive picture of your work persona. Senior professionals can vouch for your overall career progress, peers can attest to your day-to-day work habits, and mentees can reflect on your mentoring and leadership skills.

A checklist for getting a winning reference

Credibility in a reference

The credibility of your referees in their respective fields is also important. A well-respected individual can add significant weight to their endorsement. This is where the stature and professional standing of your referee can complement what they say about you.

When presenting your referees, it’s helpful to provide context. Include a brief explanation of your relationship with each referee and what aspects of your career they are best positioned to comment on. This not only prepares your referee but also guides the prospective employer or academic institution on what insights to expect from each reference.

Building and maintaining good relationships with your referees is essential. Keep them updated about your career progress and express gratitude for their support. A healthy, ongoing relationship with your referees means they are more likely to provide a positive and up-to-date account of your professional growth.

Basically, the process of selecting referees should be approached with a clear strategy. It’s about finding people who can collectively offer a well-rounded and authentic narrative of your professional journey, aligning with your current career aspirations. This requires not just a thoughtful selection but also ongoing engagement and appreciation of your referees’ support.

Asking for Permission

It is much better practice to get in touch with your referees first and ask for their permission before including their contact details in your CV. In fact, if you don’t ask a referee for permission and they are subsequently approached by the employer, the employer could be at risk of breaching the privacy act.

When approaching potential referees, it’s essential to do so in a manner that reflects both professionalism and courtesy.

Start by contacting them personally, whether through a phone call or a direct email. In your communication, briefly explain the opportunity you are pursuing and why you believe they are the right person to provide a reference. This not only shows respect for their time but also gives them context to adjust their reference effectively.

Be transparent about the nature of the role or opportunity you are applying for, and what aspects of your skills or experiences might be relevant. This helps your referee understand the expectations and frame their reference accordingly. It’s also helpful to provide any necessary documentation, like your current CV or a job description.

Remember, seeking permission is also a chance to gauge their willingness to provide a positive reference. Pay attention to their response. If they seem hesitant or unsure, it might be wise to consider other options.

Managing Weak Ones

Occasionally, you may find that some of your referees may not provide as strong a reference as you hoped. In such situations, it’s crucial to manage these weak references proactively.

First, look at the feedback or the reasons behind the weak reference. If it’s a matter of misunderstanding or lack of information, a conversation with your referee to clarify your achievements or role might be beneficial. Sometimes, providing more specific examples or accomplishments can help them offer a more positive and detailed reference.

However, if the weak reference is due to a less favourable opinion of your work or skills, it’s often better to seek alternative referees. Look for individuals who have a more comprehensive and positive understanding of your professional capabilities. It’s important to have a line-up of referees who can offer balanced and positive insights into your work.

In cases where you cannot avoid a weak reference, such as a mandatory reference from a current or former employer, prepare to counterbalance it. This can be done by strengthening the other aspects of your application or by providing additional positive references that can provide a contrasting, more rounded view of your skills and achievements.

Social Media May Overrule Winning References

A considerable percentage of hiring managers now review a candidate’s social media profile as part of their evaluation process. According to a 2018 CareerBuilder Poll, about 70% of hiring managers believe employers should screen all applicants’ social media profiles, and 69% find it an effective way to gain insight into prospective employees​​.

The influence of social media is further highlighted by data showing that 93% of hiring managers will review a candidate’s social profile before making a hiring decision​​. This trend indicates that social media profiles are not just supplementary to traditional references but can sometimes carry more weight in the hiring process.

When leveraging social media for hiring purposes, there are both benefits and risks. Social media channels can offer valuable insights for HR professionals, recruiters, and hiring managers. They can validate a candidate’s professional experience, showcase their previous work, and provide a sense of their cultural fit within an organization. Platforms like LinkedIn are extensively used for searching and vetting candidates, with 79% of recruiters reporting successful hires through the network​​.

However, it’s crucial for both candidates and employers to tread carefully. Employers must ensure they do not use information from social media to discriminate against candidates based on protected characteristics like ethnicity, religious beliefs, or gender. Additionally, candidates need to be aware of how their online presence might be perceived. For instance, recruiters often view posts related to illegal activities, sexual content, profanity, and poor judgment negatively. Conversely, posts demonstrating volunteering or charity work generally leave a positive impression​​.


While you’re on the job, don’t be afraid to seek feedback on your performance and your interaction with team members. There’s no need to feel that you have to maintain a perfect professional reputation. In the long run, your career prospects can improve significantly by identifying and overcoming your weaknesses.

What your referees say about you has the power to make you win or lose the job you’re applying for. So, choose your reference carefully and take time to reflect on your professional reputation. If you need more information about the topic, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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