Building a Strong Reference List to Get You Hired

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"Who should I submit as a reference? What classifies as an outdated reference? When should I submit them? What is common etiquette for the people acting as references?" We received many inquiries and questions around obtaining and supplying professional references. We've also seen numerous qualified job seekers pulled from consideration due to common reference mistakes, such as submitting outdated, irrelevant or unprepared references, which can very much hurt your chances of getting hired.


Submitting strong and up to date references can be the key to helping you get hired over other candidates by allowing the hiring manager to talk to people who have seen your overall technical capabilities and acumen, passion, strengths, attitude, initiative, and contributions first-hand. We've had many "job seeker success stories" by providing strong recommendations/testimonials to a Manager who was "on the fence" with hiring one of our candidates. We've seen how powerful this tactic can be and how much it can help you "seal the deal" with obtaining an offer for a role and company you want!

First and foremost, who should you include as a reference? Anyone professionally who you directly worked for (i.e. Managers, Directors), worked with (i.e. peers), supported (i.e. clients), managed, or trained/mentored. If you are an active contributor in your technical community, such as presenting at a user group meeting, SQL Saturday, or other conference, you could also include one of the organizers! If you're more junior/entry level, you could include one of your Professors, a client or Manager from any internship/s, Professor or Board Member from any academic clubs you were a member of, and/or Organizer from any hackathons/code-a-thons or other technical community events you participated in.

Here are 8 additional points and best practices, which are good to keep in mind as you develop your ‘Reference List,' and then share that List with Recruiters, HR and/or Hiring Managers.

  1. Keep them current. On our Effective Job Search webcast, a participant asked "How old of a reference is still a valid reference?" There's no black and white answer here, and the determination of whether a reference is valid is made by the individual evaluating. Both of us have the mindset that it's not so much the number of years old, but rather, the number of companies old. For example, if you have been at your company for 10+ years, and you want to include your first Manager at that company, who trained you and watched your quick progression, it's fine to include them! However, if you have a reference from 10 years ago, and you've been at 4 companies since then, it could be a red flag if you don't have more recent references. Our main suggestion is to provide one reference for the past 2-3 companies you've worked for.
  2. Relevant for role(s) you're pursuing. Provide references that endorse you for the types of skills and technologies that are required for the positions you're applying for. For example, if you're applying for a Lead role, get an updated reference/recommendation from someone who can speak to your experience mentoring, hiring, training, leading teams and meetings, etc.
  3. Provide clients/customers. We all have people we're "serving" in the role we're in. Those people make powerful references, especially since they can usually speak better to the impact your work made. Therefore, make it a goal to provide at least one client reference, i.e. someone who was on the receiving end of your contributions and can speak to the benefits of your work.
  4. Avoid family, friends, neighbors, etc. While it's good to have "character references," avoid providing a parent, other family member, neighbor, or friend. While this should be obvious, it's surprising how many reference lists we received that included one of those! One of us once ruled out a candidate for a technology position without even calling first, because they were a tenured Developer with 10+ years of experience, but listed their brother (who was not in the IT field) as one of their 3 references.
  5. Ensure your references aren't "caught off guard!" It can be slightly harmful if your references don't realize they're references. We've called numerous individuals throughout the years for references who had to take a few seconds to remember the person we were calling on behalf of. It's never a good sign if your reference, who is supposed to be one of your best professional contacts for speaking on your character, work ethic, technical acumen, etc., doesn't immediately remember who you are! Not only do you want to get their permission to add them to your ‘Reference List,' but you need to be diligent to re-ask them each time you initiate a job search if you still plan on using them.
  6. Appreciation and gratitude go a long way. People are busy; so incredibly busy. We always want to respect people's time, and show appreciation for that time. Whenever someone is willing to act as a reference for you, simply saying thank you makes all the difference. If they end up being a reference, i.e. having a conversation with a potential employer on your behalf, send a follow up thank you!
  7. The power of LinkedIn recommendations. LinkedIn continues to be a major platform that Recruiters and Hiring Managers use for both recruiting and screening applicants/candidates. Having recommendations on your LI profile is a great intentional branding tactic, and can really influence the impression people have of you! It's highly likely that a Recruiter or Manager will have done at least a precursory review of your LinkedIn profile prior to interviewing you, so their "first impression" will stem from your resume, the content of your LI profile, and any other information from additional online platforms/sites you're on. Influence their perception/impression by having 3+ recommendations from past Managers, peers, clients, etc.!
  8. When to submit. At what stage throughout the application and interview process should you provide references? A key piece of "reference etiquette" is to respect their time, so you don't want to overuse and/or provide to anyone and everyone who asks. We recommend waiting until after a phone interview with the end client! If you have a Recruiter asking for them on the first conversation, you can respond with something along the lines of "I want to be respectful of my references' time, so while I'm happy to provide references, I'd like to wait until after the first client interview or at least a confirmation that the client/Manager is seriously considering me as a candidate! In the meantime, I have several LinkedIn recommendations on my profile if you'd like to review those and/or submit to the Manager on my behalf!"
Next Steps

Keep the above important points on references in mind as you initiate your job search. It's surprising how many candidates we've seen ruled out for some of these reasons, or other candidates being selected for providing better/more relevant references.

Here are 3 quick questions related to references:

  1. Am I requesting them from the right people for the role I'm applying for? Are they the right audience, and ones the hiring Manager would deem credible and relevant?
  2. Are they recent? Remember, a list of very "outdated" (i.e. you worked for them 5 jobs ago) references can be a red flag!
  3. Are my references prepared? Have I given them the heads up that they might be contacted?

If you are nervous or unsure how to make a request, here is an example script:

Reference Request Script

"I hope you are having a nice week! I am finishing my current contract soon, and I'm starting to search for my next opportunity, targeting SQL Server development and business intelligence roles! I would like to list you as a professional reference, especially for any positions involving custom development, supporting enterprise level environments and/or ones utilizing the SQL BI Suite. Would that be okay? I will be sure to provide your information sparingly, for positions I am highly interested in, and will only provide later in the interviewing process so you are not inundated with calls!

Thank you again for all your guidance, and the opportunities you provided me with, while at ABC Company! It was a very rewarding experience, and it was a great stepping stone for me in my career!"

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About the author
MSSQLTips author Erica Woods Erica Woods has nearly a decade in the IT staffing world, an MBA, and is a member of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

This author pledges the content of this article is based on professional experience and not AI generated.

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