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.
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.
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:
Let us first go over the advantages and disadvantages one by one.
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.
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.
Yes, employers and hiring managers are looking at your social media profile! According to an article from TheStar.com.my, 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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Here are a few tips and some examples of how to go about asking for professional or personal references.
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.
According to Forbes, there are five ways to maximise your professional 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
The company or university your reference works at
Full address of your reference's company or university
Relationship to you (typically italicised)
Here are a few tips and some examples of where to best place your reference list on your resume.
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.”
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.