How to list references: Simple steps for success

Listing references might not seem like something you should have to worry about after going through the hassles of crafting a perfect cover letter and killer resume. However, there is a proper method when it comes to how to list references, and it can have an impact on how your job application is received.

Whether you want tips on the nuances of naming referees or a general primer on how to list references, the answers lie below. Let’s start by examining some surprising information from a study that details reference listing statistics that you should make sure you’re not a part of.

As part of a 2012 CareerBuilder survey conducted by Harris Interactive, almost 2,500 HR professionals and hiring managers, as well as 4,000 workers, were surveyed about a variety of items related to their references and reference listings.

Here are some key takeaways from the survey:

  • 29% of employers reported catching a fake reference on a candidate’s application
  • 62% of employers said the references they contacted from the applicant’s list didn’t have good things to say about the applicant
  • 15% of workers reported they’ve listed someone as a reference but not told the person
  • 80% of employers claim they contact references

These numbers tell us interesting things about basic mistakes many people seem to be making when it comes to how to list references. The first mistake is obvious: don’t lie by listing a fake reference. That’s how not to list references 101, right there.

If you don’t know Barack Obama or Gordan Ramsay, don’t put them on your reference list. It’s that simple. Or if you’re tempted to list a boss above your actual boss as a reference because they have a noteworthy name or flashy title, but you’ve built up no real relationship with them, again, don’t list them as a reference. Because that counts as fake, too.

Another worrying statistic is 62% of employers who didn’t hear good things from referees. Do not list anyone as a reference if you suspect they will say anything whatsoever that could be misconstrued as something besides glowing praise. If you list a reference who’ll dunk on you or avoid being a good cheerleader, you’re basically giving a hiring manager ammo to shoot you with.

Communicate with your references

As you might expect, listing a reference but not alerting the person you’ve listed beforehand (or very shortly afterward) isn’t a very smart move, either. When I interviewed Amy McMillan, a professor and Director of the Muriel A. Howard Honors Program at Buffalo State College, she had this to say about people who list her without telling her:

“If I get a request for a recommendation and a student hasn’t actually asked me, I ignore it. If I get a phone call for a recommendation and a student hasn’t asked me, I tell the person who is asking—this looks pretty bad to the potential employer/advisor/name the position.”

If it’s true that 80% of employers contact references, then you definitely do not want to risk being a part of any of the above statistics.

With all of these red flags addressed, the core challenge remains: how to list references in a way that primes you for success. Thankfully, the method of listing references successfully is simple. Just do the opposite of the above things!

Make sure you’ve spoken to your potential references and only list the ones that give their consent to be listed and are absolutely over-the-moon about you. If they’re not impressed by you professionally and personally, they shouldn’t be on your reference list.

In terms of what to include on the list itself, global human resource consulting firm Robert Half has this to say: “Give the prospective employer the full name, job title, phone number and email address of each reference.”

Robert Half also suggests it might be worthwhile to include a short description of how you know your references, why you included them on your list, and when are the best times to contact each person. This makes the hiring manager’s task of contacting references as easy as cake while simultaneously demonstrating that you’re organized and efficient.

If you want to see a solid layout of what a reference list should look like on paper, the famous online job board Indeed has a post on how to list references that includes a useful visual. Indeed’s template shows off some of the advice Robert Half mentioned in their blog post, reinforcing that you should include key contact info, full names, job titles, and descriptors of your connection with the referee in question.

As you can see in the Indeed post, the actual process of listing references really isn’t complex at all—heck, it only took around 50 words here, to sum up, the core elements of what info to include on the piece of paper (or Word document) itself. The challenge with how to list references is more about the external components, such as getting permission to list people as references in the first place.

Earning the references themselves is the core component of these lists, one that’s cultivated over the course of months and years. This means you might have the best custom reference sheet format on the planet, but it won’t matter if you didn’t put in the work long beforehand to establish the relationships necessary to fill the space on the sheet.

Regarding how many references you need, the global employment website’s resume expert Kim Isaacs claims three to four is a healthy number for most jobs, though applicants aiming for senior positions might want to include up to seven on their list. If the job you’re applying for states a specific number of references wanted, though, follow those instructions. And lastly, be sure to keep your reference list separate from all your other job materials, since this isn’t something to be crammed onto the bottom of a resume.