References: when and how best to write them on your resume

References: when and how best to write them on your resume
JobStreet content teamupdated on 02 August, 2023

Question: So when it comes to job hunting, why do you think you need a winning guide on how to write references on your resume?

Simply put, good references are instrumental in just about any industry. They tell your potential employers about your past work while also showing them the quality of relationships you've built in your career thus far. These alone can make or break your chances of getting the position.

Aside from being able to choose the people who will put in a good word for you on your resume, you should also know when, what, and how not to put together a reference list on your resume.

These past few years saw Malaysia rising as the highest in active jobseekers in Asia according to the 2022 Hays Asia's Salary Guide, with 39% of Malaysian respondents actively searching for greener pastures and with 46% open-minded about other job opportunities.

This naturally means that there's a sharp increase in the number of resumes flooding the job market today. Along with developing one's skills, a job seeker must learn to write the winning resume to land the perfect job. According to Harvard career experts, however, one of the top five resume mistakes job seekers make is including a list of references when they don't necessarily have to.

Why so?

Well, Harvard career experts explained that a list of references is not required by hiring managers in the initial part of the recruitment process. They also explained that you don't even need to put “References available upon request” on your resume since employers will only be interested in your reference list once they already made up their minds that your application somehow belonged in the “Accept” pile and not in the “Reject” pile.

A good dose of business common sense does dictate, however, that, as a well-prepared job seeker, you should first and foremost know when, what, and how to put together a reference list on your resume.

After all, a reference list on your resume does not only serve as your veritable career life-support system to your entire job-hunting endeavours. It also works as a reliable measuring stick employers use to verify as true whatever work experience and skill you wrote down on your resume.

In short, including references on your resume may be more of a tactical or application-specific decision rather than a strategic or general one.

So when and how do you start writing references on your resume? What are some of the tips for writing, listing, and formatting references for an ideal resume? And, more importantly, what are the things you need to avoid when you include references on your resume?

This article provides all the answers to these questions, plus various tips that together will serve as your winning guide on how to write references that will put your resume at the very top of the “Accept” heap.

To write or not to write references? That is the question

Should you put references on a resume? The best answer is: yes, but references are not essential. You need to learn to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of including a reference list, and then come up with a firm decision. This also means you should be ready to answer questions such as the ones below:

  1. Do you think you need to include a reference list on your resume?
  2. If you answered yes, then what references' information should you include and how should you write them?
  3. If you answered no, then what are your alternatives to including references on your resume?

Let us first go over the advantages and disadvantages one by one.

Pros of including references on a resume

  • References generally make a good impression of you, your skills and training, your experience, your previous job performance, and your overall potential as an employee. For example, the Digital Skills for Tomorrow's Jobs programme is aimed to lend support to Malaysians in digital upskilling and reskilling, increasing the employability of job seekers, and getting them hired at the end of the programme. For sure, the programme is an ideal reference that will at least get one foot securely through the door of the hiring manager.
  • It's always best practice to be well-prepared, so having a reference list on hand as the optional second page of a 1-page resume may be a good strategy after all.
  • Including references on your resume is the best way to confirm the awards and recognition you have written on your resume. In short, a reference list is a big confidence booster to both you as a job seeker and to your prospective employer.
  • References on your resume virtually serve as your career life-support system as a job seeker. When a hiring manager says to you, “Tell me who the people you worked with are, and I will tell you whether you are hired or not,” then that's when you can pull out your well-crafted reference list as your veritable career life-saver.
  • Including a reference list on your resume is a good way to mark the milestones in your career (and also in your life) that you would want to be highlighted when applying for a job.

Cons of including references on a resume

  • A poorly crafted and outdated reference list, whether professional or personal, may backfire on you, especially if you have not vetted your references well enough.
    ⁠For example, after resigning three months ago as a sales clerk, Ahmad, 26, decided to include his former immediate supervisor as one of his references on a resume he had just recently submitted. Ahmad remembered how his supervisor always gave him glowing weekly performance evaluations.
    ⁠The former sales clerk failed to remember, however, that his former immediate supervisor was due to retire two months ago. So finally when the hiring manager called up the phone number of the HR department at Ahmad's former job, his reference can no longer be reached.
  • Both lack and excess of references' information may likely spell doom for your job application. In short, honesty is the best policy when it comes to writing a reference list. Trying to spruce up your resume even with a few white and seemingly harmless lies will not do you any good at all. Trust and integrity are important endearing character traits that every job seeker should have.
  • References are not the same for every job application.
    ⁠The references you listed for your application as an administrative officer in a local government office may not serve the same purpose as those you listed for applying as a senior sales supervisor of a top insurance company.
    ⁠For the former, you may need references who would know your hard and soft skills as part of management. Meanwhile, the latter may be more interested in your role as part of the sales operations of your former job. So it may be better to first play your cards close to your chest.
  • In today's environment, a reference check is considered an employer's privilege.
    ⁠Most hiring managers would let you know if they need references for your job application. There are employers, however, who will choose to check your background and character based on the information you have already included on your resume.
    ⁠Remember that hiring managers do not work in a vacuum and also have a network of professional and personal contacts. These contacts may already give them the additional information they need without asking for references from you.
  • In our digital age, the need to include references on your resume is no longer a requirement.
    ⁠Employers nowadays could check out your job application in real-time online. What job seekers should be ready with is a separate document with references that would complement and even boost the information you have included in your job application.

According to a 2020 HRMAsia report, Malaysia ranked 7th (the highest in Asia) when it comes to the global average for employee engagement. With this in mind, and with the help of today's AI (Artificial Intelligence) in the workplace, it would be relatively easy for employers to touch base with the HR department of any company to check your background and character as an employee. AI is already making a big impact on the talent acquisition strategy of companies, with 96% of veteran HR pros understanding the future of AI in improving their hiring process.

Alternatives to including references on a resume

Create your online resume.

It is a great advantage nowadays to have an online resume that will be accessible to prospective employers 24/7, and one that you can update anytime, anywhere with your smartphone or laptop. You can also get very creative with the way you format and present your reference list on your online resume. In Malaysia today, small and medium businesses (SMBs) are hiring more young professionals who are tech-savvy.

Hays, a specialist recruitment firm, says that the pandemic crisis generally raised business activity in the country by 54% since 2021. This, in turn, drives companies to hire more job seekers who possess tech skills and experience. An online resume will go a long way in showing this to future employers.

Build a strong social media portfolio.

Yes, employers and hiring managers are looking at your social media profile! According to an article from, your social media profile could help land you a better job. What better way to check out a job seeker today than searching for him or her in Google, right?
⁠This means that even before your prospective employer gets to finish reading your 1-page resume, he can already screen and check your records more quickly than you can say “Hire me!”

Considered at par as being the best alternative to including references on your resume is simply: write a good and strong resume!

Sans any access to online tools to create a resume over the internet or build a social media portfolio, you can still give your job application the “oomph” it needs. Yes, even without including your references.

All you need is the imagination to make your resume stand out from the rest. One key to this is showing an impressive layout of your personal information, academic qualifications, work experience, and other relevant details that would easily catch the attention of prospective employers. The official government website defines resumes as written intermediaries, after all.

In addition, Harvard Business Review suggests that eye-tracking research has revealed that an HR professional will read your resume for an average of seven seconds before deciding to accept or reject it. This means that when it comes to resumes, first impressions last.

Who to ask for a reference

Professional references

Your former company's CEO.

The top honcho of your former office might not know you by your first name. Nevertheless, the person who signed your appointment, who oftentimes is your former company's CEO, should have all the reputation and credibility in the world to put in a good word or two for you.
⁠Would there be any other in a higher position and authority to do so? So if you feel that you have parted with your former job in good stead, a well-crafted recommendation from the chief executive of your former office should go a long way in helping your job application.

Your past or present coworker.

⁠A colleague who fully understands your work style and ethics should also spruce up your reference list. So the quote “Remember who your friends are and I will tell you who you are” readily applies as well when it comes to professional references.

Your immediate supervisor.

⁠The one person who knew you day in and day out at work should be none other than your former immediate supervisor. Particularly in Malaysia where managers tend to be paternalistic, immediate supervisors are inclined to build good, working relationships with their subordinates.

Your HR manager.

Hiring managers are generally HR professionals themselves. So it is more likely that a prospective employer would reach out to the HR manager of your former job to confirm the details on your resume.

Your former clients.

⁠In reality, sometimes no good deed goes unrewarded. So if in your former job, for instance, having had a few satisfied customers, it might not be a bad idea at all to reach out to one or two trustworthy ones you can count on to be your reference. But before you list professional references like former clients, make sure they were 100% happy with the service you had provided them.

Be careful, however, in including your former clients, for this can backfire on you. Since a hiring manager would likely put more weight on the testimonial of your client rather than your own.

Personal references

Your college professor.

References that will attest to your academic qualifications are often reliable barometers used by hiring managers. They tend to think that your study style and ethics are a direct reflection of your work style and ethics. Especially if you are a new graduate and have no work experience to speak of yet, your former professor should be able to describe your skills that may be relevant to the job you are applying for.

Your thesis advisor.

A piece of intimate knowledge about you as a student and as a person is what your thesis advisor can offer to your prospective employer if and when you decide to include him or her in your reference list.

Your coach or captain of the team.

Now before you shake your head in disagreement, let's tell this story. So Rayyan, 23, is just one of the many average college graduates who barely got through their studies with passing grades. Nothing really impressive. No scholarly achievement or recognition he can write on his resume.
⁠But wait. Along with his academic qualifications, he included his extracurricular activities. Yes, he was a varsity player on his university's soccer team. And, guess what, his prospective employer is a stan (stalker-fan) of the great Mokhtar Dahari ! Before Rayyan can say “Goal!”, his prospective employer nicely places his application cover letter and resume on top of the “Accept” heap.

Your community volunteer group leader.

Including personal references from your social activities will show you as a well-rounded person who likes to keep your post-pandemic work-life balance manageable and stress-free. In the same way that a social media profile influences recruitment and talent acquisition nowadays, your community activities can both serve you and others effectively.

Your club or association's official.

⁠Okay, so your best friend made you join the Rotary or the Lion's Club of Malaysia without your full knowledge. Well, it's time to reap the dividends from your membership in one or two of these clubs of international repute. So, next time, include them as your reference!

In case of emergency, break the reference list glass box

Always bring along a separate reference list in all your job application appointments. When the TV weather forecaster tells you that there is a low chance of rain today, this does not mean you can leave your umbrella behind. Be prepared for anything. And that includes having to face a prospective employer who is a stickler for references.

How to ask for references

Male professional reviewing female colleague's reference for inclusion in his resume

Referee etiquette

When looking for a job, you should always be guided by referee etiquette. For instance, if you're not sure how your referee will answer your prospective employer's call, you're strongly advised to give a heads-up to him or her. It's part of proper referee etiquette to keep in touch with your referees, whether they are professional or personal.

Tips for asking for references

Confident woman shaking hands with potential reference, securing strong endorsement for her resume

Here are a few tips and some examples of how to go about asking for professional or personal references.

Ask for their permission politely.

Here is an example of the email you can send to your professional referee:

Dear Mr. Smith,

Good day! I'm writing to ask permission if you'd be willing to be a reference for me in my job search after the end of my contract with your company.

I was assigned for five months as the sales clerk of our toy section. I'm so happy that I was able to boost the sales of our toys these past few months.

Thank you so much and I hope to hear from you soon.

Email or call: use the proper communication method

In mass communication, there is a famous saying that goes like this, “The medium is the message.” This means that you have to use your decision-making skills to understand what is the proper channel of communication for certain prospective referees.

For example, academic referees prefer to follow the standard process of having your request go through the registrar. Some professional referees strictly abide by their company policy to have your request processed by their HR department. The important thing is you have to be aware of the formal process and follow it unless otherwise explicitly provided by your referees.

Timing: know when to call them

Neither too soon nor too early. Of course, you are not expected to request references on your first work day. But you are also not expected to do the same after a decade or two. You have to be realistic about when to make the request. Also, keep in mind that, for professional references, you need to communicate with them during office hours. This will make your request formal and need to be acted upon promptly as one.

Tips for getting strong references

According to Forbes, there are five ways to maximise your professional references.

Think of the long-term: build strong relationships with potential references

As your career life-support system, references should complement your job application. References should fit like a glove. While the devil is in the details, you must also be able to see the big picture when it comes to your career.

This means that building rapport is not only a way to make you popular, it also creates bridges of communication that you may cross later on when requesting references from the powers that be in your job.

Ask for permission (and their insights, too): share your job search goals with potential references

One important rule in getting strong references: never assume! Just because you and your immediate supervisor paired up for an icebreaker game in a team-building activity does not mean he is ready to put you on a pedestal once a prospective employer calls in.

Ask for permission politely. Better yet, talk to your potential references. Share your job search goals with them and ask for valuable job-hunting insights which they are more likely to possess already.

Professional vs. personal: provide potential references with relevant information

To be clear, character references are important. While there is no hard-and-fast rule on how many professional and personal references you are required to include in a resume, it is common practice to have at least three of both types. As always, however, be prepared with your reference list that will be able to confirm all the information you have written on your resume, from personal to academic to professional information.

Quid pro quo in action: help referees help you

The famous line from the movie “Jerry Maguire” rings true when it comes to getting a trustworthy reference. So the way to convince a former boss to be your referee is to answer the nagging question, “What's in it for him?” Your potential referee will surely appreciate the fact that your request will entail something for him or her, too.

The power of “thank you:” follow up with references

It may sound like an after-effect, but remember to look back and thank your references whatever becomes of your job application. Referees will feel “used” once you stop communicating with them abruptly, or not updating them regarding your job-hunting.

So what do you include on a reference list?

Typically, you can add one to three references to a reference list. Including three references makes the way you present them seem like a kind of shortlist that appears to say, “These are my three top references.”

The common format for a reference list is putting the most relevant person on top, instead of placing them in chronological order. Here is a sample of the format:

First and last name (typically bold)

Professional title

The company or university your reference works at

Full address of your reference's company or university

Phone number

Email address

Relationship to you (typically italicised)

Where to place your reference list on your resume

Here are a few tips and some examples of where to best place your reference list on your resume.

  • On a separate page. Take this advice with a grain of salt: after creating a one or two-page resume, make an exclusive page for your reference list. Keep in mind to use the same font and format you used in your resume. See the example below:
    Reference list
  • If you need to include a reference sheet to boost your resume, use the graphic design's rule of thirds for your layout. The three most common resume formats are chronological, functional, and hybrid. Depending on what format you chose to use, the rule of thirds layout will make it easy for the roving eyes of the reader to see. See the example below:
    Reference list on your resume

How to write your references' information

Formatting name, job title, and contact information

This is like a mini "referee resume". As mentioned before, the name of your reference is on the first line, often in bold. It should be unnumbered and should bear the full name (first name and last name). The most typical font styles used for resumes are Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri, Garamond, and Georgia. Font size will generally be the same for all lines.

Take note that you may have credentials as suffixes. For example:

Sam Smith, MBA (Master of Business Administration)

Nur Megat, RN (Registered Nurse)

The job title is placed on the second line. It must bear the professional title position of your reference and must never be abbreviated.

The company or university name follows and it must also be complete and not abbreviated.

The full company or university address follows.

Next is the phone number. Three different formats are acceptable:

555-123-4567 | (555) 123-4567 | 555.123.4567

Next follows the complete email address.

Then an optional space is used before adding the final part: your relationship to your reference. This part is usually italicised and should contain a concise description of your relationship. For example, “Ms. Megat was my trainer/advisor when I was an apprentice at XYZ Medical Clinic from January 1, 2022, to December 31, 2022.”

Not knowing how to request references, a common mistake

This mistake is directly related to what was mentioned before regarding poorly crafted and outdated references. Always make sure you understand how your request for references is coursed through and processed, whether they are professional, academic, or personal.

For example, most universities do not give out the contact numbers and email addresses of the members of their faculty. The regular process is through the registrar's office which is usually available on the school's official website.

Meanwhile, some companies prefer to have such a request for references coursed through their HR department.

So along with using the wrong format, like misplacement of job titles and incomplete addresses, make sure you have the updated contact information accessible in your reference list.

Resume reference examples

Creating a professional layout

The first thing to decide is whether you have to make a separate exclusive page or not when it comes to your professional references. The surefire way to do a professional reference list is to keep the page separate. But make sure also that you retain the format of your resume. Here is an example below:

More examples

Here is an example of a simple resume with a reference:

A sleek professional look may also work and you can end up creating a reference list that does away with the usual format but is still attractive and strong. Here is a good example:

Examples of how not to list references

Here is an example of a really bad personal reference:

My Favorite Reference (improper heading)

Juana de la Cruz (using a relation to be a reference)

Kuala Lumpur (inappropriate way of listing address)

123-4567 (the wrong format for the phone number and wrong list order)

Midwife (completely unrelated to your job application)

Juana is my aunt. She helped me get through my college days. (completely unrelated job information)

Another common bad example is including this at the bottom part of your resume:

“References available upon request”

This is no longer appropriate since it takes up space that could have been used to boost your skills. Particularly your collaboration skills, which is one of the most in-demand groups of soft skills and behaviours employers are looking out for from their new hires.

Tips for communicating with your references

A jobseeker talking to her potential references politely

Keep your references informed.

Before you go through the interview process, you have to consider communicating your intent with your references. You should be free to seek permission and guidance from them along the way.

Thank your references.

This goes without saying. Your references are valuable connections and they must be treated with respect. Make sure to thank them for their time and consideration.

Maintain those bridges of communication with your references.

Be cordial with them. Once the hiring process has concluded, you should keep in touch with your references, whether or not the outcome is in your favor. These people, after all, might be your keys to other opportunities in the near future.

Read more about listing references on your resume and other job-related articles at Career Advice.


To recap, this winning guide on when and how to write references on your resume covered the pros and cons of including a reference list. While the importance of references cannot be doubted, you as a job seeker should have the audacity to decide whether a specific job application requires a reference list on your resume right away.

One of the best practices offered is creating a separate exclusive page for your reference list, keeping in mind to use the same format you used in your resume.

Understand which references you can include in your resume. Once you got that figured out, you can now list your references' information, such as full name, job title, company or university name, full company or university address, phone number, email address, and your relation to the referee.

Next is answering how to include references on your resume in terms of format and layout.

Format suggestions include the use of the correct font (Times New Roman, Arial, etc.), its size, what to put in bold (the full name), and what to italicise (your relationship to your referee).

Layout suggestions include using the rule of thirds in graphic design, which tracks how the eyes of a reader move on the page. That is why a reference list is recommended to be placed at the bottom right side of a resume since it will have a lasting impact on the viewer. While this is true, the other layout suggestion still holds strong: creating a separate exclusive page for your reference list.

In summary, job seekers should understand that references are not just pieces of information, but real people who have created an impact on your professional life, your academic life, and your personal life. These people are the ones who should be able to give your prospective employers a true and thorough briefing of your skills and experiences, your academic qualifications, and, more importantly, your potential as their employee.


  1. Are references necessary for every job application?
    ⁠Yes, references are necessary for every job application. The question is: when and how to include references on your resume?
    ⁠According to Hays, though there is an obvious upsurge of online resumes and social media profiles in the job market today, traditional resumes still comprise the bulk of the most credible endorsements of your skills, experience, and suitability for a job.
    ⁠Forbes also concluded that, yes, references still matter today. Hiring managers want to engage with your referees in case they do have questions about some details you have listed on your resume.
    ⁠Consider this story. Jake, 57, the hiring manager of a top food processing company decided to check out your job application as an assistant manager for their new processing plant.
    ⁠You indicated on your resume that you have a personal website. Apart from that, you added that personal and professional information is accessible on your website. Jake decided to check it out. The links to your references are not directly connected to the references' information. Jake decided to ask you for a traditional reference list instead.

  2. How many references should you include on a resume?
    ⁠There is no hard-and-fast rule in the number of references you should include on your resume. For instance, if you have one very strong and attractive reference, you may want to highlight it on your one-page resume and place it as a single reference.
    ⁠The average number ranges from one to three references, with a maximum of five. In the case of having three to five references, a separate exclusive reference list page is highly recommended.

  3. Is it better to provide personal or professional references?
    ⁠When you provide references, a hybrid or combination of both personal and professional is the best. Of course, you have to work out the balance so that both your personal and professional references will be able to attest to your skills, qualifications, and potential as an employee.
    ⁠As an example, companies today are looking for employees who are assessed as “culturally fit” to their organisation. It is because companies today believe that high performance and low attrition rates are possible with employees who fit their team not only as a professional but also as a person.

  4. What should you do if you don't have any professional references?
    ⁠The best alternative to professional references is academic references. Most HR professionals think that the study style and ethics you utilised as a university student will be a reliable gauge of how your work style and ethics will be once you are hired.

  5. Can you use the same references for multiple job applications?
    ⁠In reality, references should be dynamic when it comes to multiple job applications. Conventional wisdom shows that a reference list is created with a specific set of related job applications in mind. So this means that, in case of multiple job applications that are not related to each other, you have to create job-specific reference lists to target the particular job descriptions you have selected in your job-hunting.

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