How many references should you have? (and who to ask)

Updated on August 21, 2023
How many references should you have

Some employers conduct extensive background checks when hiring new recruits because people lie on their resumes and use fake references all the time when applying for jobs.

That is why employers usually require candidates to list professionals that they have worked with in the past as references.

HR experts recommend having at least 3 people listed as references on a work resume. This way potential employers and hiring managers will be able to contact them as part of your background check to confirm that you have the necessary skills, experience, and character for the job.

But what happens when you don’t have anybody that you can list as a reference on your resume because you have no previous work experience?

You might think that the situation is hopeless but here we will give you a few ideas on how to solve this problem.

How many references do most employers look for?

How many references do most employers look for

Most employers look for at least 3 references when they are considering a new recruit.

It is also recommended to have some variety in your references. For example, you can list a previous boss or manager of yours, a coworker or somebody who paralleled your role, or one of your subordinates.

How many references are too many on a resume?

Listing 6 or more people as references would be too many.

You should list 3 to 5 people at most because any more than that could be interpreted negatively by hiring managers.

It is better to have fewer references that you know can be contacted rather than many who are unreliable.

Do employers check all 3 references?

Employers might check all three references as part of an extensive background check.

The more important the role is, the more likely it is that all the references that you have listed will be contacted and asked questions about your previous work experience.

Who should you use as a reference?

Who you should use as a reference depends on the role that you are applying for. Here are examples of job roles paired with recommended types of references.

  • Internship/entry-level job (no previous work experience) – Teachers, professors, classmates, hobby club members.
  • Entry-level job (with previous work experience) – Previous managers, team leads, coworkers.
  • Experienced specialist – Managers, team leads, company directors.
  • Team lead/manager/other upper management roles – Managers, team leads, company directors, subordinates.

Can you give 2 references from the same company?

It is perfectly fine to feature 2 references from the same company. In fact, all your references could be from the same company.

It is best to feature references from your most recent job. This way you will be putting forth the most accurate up-to-date account of your professional experience.

Can you put someone as a reference without asking?

It is not recommended to put someone as your reference without asking them first because they might not respond to an unknown number calling them.

They are probably not going to be happy that you listed them as a reference on your job resume without asking them.

Nothing good will come out of something like this. As mentioned earlier, people lie on their job resumes all the time, and employers are aware of this.

If you are caught “cheating” like this, then hiring managers might decide to ghost you and turn their attention to other job candidates.

You might also want to check our guide on how to handle the situation in case your references do not respond.

Can a bad reference cost you a job?

Can a bad reference cost you a job

A bad reference could indeed cost you a job. This could happen if the person reveals distressing information about you.

That is why it is best to include references that you are certain would say only nice things about you.

Can an old job give you a bad reference?

An old job could give you a bad reference if they were not happy with how you performed your duties.

While researching your job history, a hiring manager could decide to contact other companies where you have worked and ask about you.

Who to use as a reference when you have none

Naturally, if you haven't worked before, there is no way for you to feature previous managers and coworkers as references.

In this case, you can simply feature people that you have collaborated with in the past. Here are some examples.

  • Teachers
  • Classmates
  • Sports coach
  • Teammates
  • Hobby club members
  • Friends

However, even if you have nobody to list as a reference, remember that this is just one lament of your CV.

To compensate for this deficiency, make sure to prepare really well for your interviews with our job-winning tips!

Who should you put as a reference for your first job?

For your first job, it would be best to feature teachers and university professors as your references because they can confirm how hard-working and dedicated you are.

If this is not an option, then you could ask some of your classmates with whom you have worked on group assignments.

How to use a friend as a reference

As a last resort, you can use some of your friends as references. If you are a gamer, then you could list one of your gaming buddies or perhaps somebody that you went to the gym with.

The main idea is to list somebody that you have collaborated with.

How long after a reference check will you get a job offer?

The timeline after a reference check can vary depending on the company's hiring process. Typically, if everything goes well, you can expect to receive a job offer between 1 - 3 business days after your references have been checked.

This period allows the hiring team to review the feedback from your references, make a final decision, and prepare an official job offer.

However, keep in mind that this is a general guideline and may differ based on the company's specific policies or the number of applicants they're considering.

What I do as a hiring manager

As a hiring manager over the years, I've come to realize that references can provide valuable insights into a candidate's work ethic, character, and suitability for a role.

When I receive a candidate's list of references, I usually start by reviewing the names and their relationship to the candidate.

It's always a good sign when I see a mix of supervisors, colleagues, and sometimes even subordinates. This diversity offers a more holistic view of the candidate from different perspectives.

Do I check all the references? Not always. Typically, I'll start with the most recent or the most relevant reference based on the position we're hiring for.

If the feedback is consistent and aligns with what I've observed during the interview process, I might not feel the need to contact every single reference.

However, if there are any red flags or inconsistencies, I'll dig deeper and reach out to more, if not all, of the references provided.

One thing I've learned is to listen not just to what the references say, but also to what they don't say.

Sometimes, it's the hesitation, the tone, or the choice of words that can reveal more than a straightforward answer.

Over time, I've also developed a set of go-to questions that help me gauge the candidate's strengths, areas of improvement, and overall fit for our company culture.

Questions like, "Can you describe a situation where the candidate faced a challenge and how they handled it?" or "How would you describe their collaboration style with team members?"

In the end, while resumes and interviews are essential, references offer that external validation and a sneak peek into how the candidate operates in a professional setting.

They've saved me from potential hiring mistakes and have also given me the confidence to move forward with standout candidates.

Frequently asked questions about references

How should I present my references on my resume or application?

List references on a separate page with their name, title, company, relationship to you, phone number, and email address.

What questions do employers typically ask when they call references?

Employers often ask about your work performance, reliability, interpersonal skills, and reasons for leaving the previous job.

What if a potential reference declines my request to list them?

Respect their decision and seek another individual who can positively vouch for your skills and character.

Written by:
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co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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