How To Choose Your Referees.

Your referees are very important in the job-seeking process. Most people focus on presenting their qualifications, skills and experience and spend little time deciding who should be their referees. But choosing a good referee can make all the difference. If you choose the wrong person, you might be rejected from jobs that were perfect for you. Here’s a guide on ‘How To Choose Your Referees’

Some employers may have a policy of only providing factual references – stating only your dates of employment, job title and possibly the reason for leaving.  While these should not be viewed negatively by a potential employer they will not help you convince them of your suitability. It can be very worthwhile asking your employer to provide you with a full character reference, even if this is provided on a personal basis rather than as an official employer reference.

What do referees do?

Referees provide extra information that lets a potential employee know about your work history, your skills and experience. This information reinforces what you have written on your CV by giving someone else’s word that your claims are accurate.

However, your referee can also be asked to give an opinion on your character, commenting on factors such as your reliability and punctuality.

Occasionally employers ask for a character reference only, but usually, they want to hear about aspects of your work history and your character.

Who can be your referee?

The best people to be your referees are:

  • former employers, especially a mentor or boss
  • your teacher/lecturer/tutor
  • your PhD supervisor or examiner

Do not choose:

  • a friend of the family or a neighbour (unless they have specific knowledge of your work)

The best references are written by people who know you well, so pick the person you worked most closely with at your last job or the lecturer who you got on best with.  Obviously, it helps if you had a friendly working relationship with them too!  Choose someone who will write a sympathetic reference and be as positive about you as possible.

How to choose them?

It is good etiquette to ask for people’s permission to act as your referee before giving their name to a potential employer.

Some people will act as a referee for you for several years. Others might be only suitable when you apply for a particular type of job. Think about what each person can say about you and whether their knowledge of you is relevant to the particular job you’re applying for.

You must give your referees’ names and contact details at the bottom of your CV.


How many do I need?

Most people have two referees. However, a few jobs ask for three referees so make sure that you have a reserve that you can call on.

Don’t ignore the power of testimonials

Testimonials can be included with an application, especially as an addendum to a CV, but are often also given on your profile page on LinkedIn.  These are similar to references but are provided by you as an applicant rather than sourced by the employer.  While an employer is likely to still take up references, testimonials can be a very powerful addition to your application and have the advantage of being known to you in advance.  When you choose your referees, ask for a testimonial in the same way you would ask them to act as a referee.

Some reference myths:

1.) It is illegal to provide a bad reference

Of course, referees must not say things about you that are not true, but what they write should also form an accurate summary of your performance.  If, for example, you have received a written or a verbal warning at your previous role this may well be included in your reference.  The law states that the reference must be fair and accurate and if you feel this is not the case you may have a legal case to proceed against them, but you will need to prove it is not accurate and that you have been damaged as a result.

2.) An applicant has the right to see his/her references

This is a very grey area and the law is not entirely clear on this question.  Some people believe they have the right to see what has been written about them under the Freedom of Information Act, but this is not actually the case and references are specifically excluded from this Act.  However, references are covered under the Data Protection Act, but only if you ask the person who received the reference and not the person who wrote it.  As stated above though, the law is very unclear here and you may only be shown a redacted reference.  Some employers do have an open reference policy where you will always be shown what was said but this is not always the case.  It is useful to know that the law is different in Scotland where you have more rights to see what was said.  However, if you wish to see your reference and you are refused, the best option is to seek legal advice for your particular case and circumstances.

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