The ultimate guide to references for your CV

Choosing the right references for your CV could make or break your chances of success. For most employers it’s the final check before they decide to hire you. Even after you’ve given a great interview, if your references don’t give you a glowing recommendation and backup the claims you made on your CV, the whole process could have been a waste of time.

Picking the very best references is not an easy process, but we are here to help. Here’s our ultimate guide to references for your CV:

References 101 

A reference is someone you choose to represent your previous employment and to comment on your performance. You would typically choose a manager from a previous role who you worked under, and they would agree to vouch for your performance and to acknowledge your attendance, your job title, and your tasks and responsibilities.

How many references should I have on my CV? 

There is no set rule to the amount of references you should have on your CV, but typically two are expected. With only one reference you would leave the employer feeling a little suspicious as to your track record. A minimum of two solid references is the best way to go – but is there a maximum?

You might have between 3-4 references on your CV for some senior/management and professional positions but this wouldn’t usually be expected for a lower level role. However, if you are completing an application form, be guided by the space allowed for this section – if more than 2 spaces are provided, you might use the opportunity to offer additional contacts.

Why are references important when writing a CV? 

The whole process of writing a CV is to showcase to a new employer all of your skills, your qualifications and past work experience. The employer will then choose the very best CVs that closely match the job advert and request an interview.

Typically the references are contacted after the interviews have been conducted as a final step in the process, to ensure that the candidate’s credentials can be backed up by a third party. Without this reference the employer has to trust that everything you’ve said on your CV is true and accurate. Most employers aren’t willing to do that.

Who should I choose for a reference? 

Conversation CV referenceWhere possible, speak to your references first before including them on your CV (this may not be realistic if you are still working and don’t want your employer to know that you’re job hunting).

A previous manager is the best choice as your first reference. You should always choose a manager or supervisor that you worked closely with and can verify your performance. It’s also more beneficial to choose someone recent rather than a manager who you worked with a very long time ago and may be unable to accurately recall your performance. If you’re currently working, a prospective employer will usually expect one of the references to be from your current employer although they will usually be willing to hold off contacting them until you’ve been offered the role.

You can choose a colleague to provide you with a reference, but it would generally be far better to choose a manager as that would add more credibility. An employer would be more inclined to believe a manager’s recommendation as opposed to a colleague who is on the same level as the candidate. Including a colleague rather than a manager may also lead the employer to wonder if you’re hiding something.

Your second reference can be a previous manager from another firm, an academic reference or a personal reference. The personal reference will carry more weight if the person giving it is a professional. For example, if you are involved with with a local organisation, you might choose the manager/organiser who has knowledge of you and your contributions to their campaigns.

You should never choose a family member, as the employer will assume that they will be biased and won’t provide an honest and accurate reference.

Summary – who to choose

First reference:

  1. Your current employer OR
  2. (if unemployed) Your most recent employer OR
  3. (if never employed) Your university supervisor / volunteering manager OR
  4. (if above not applicable) A professional person that knows you well

Second reference:

  1. Your previous employer (if not too long ago) OR
  2. Your university supervisor / volunteering manager OR
  3. (if above not applicable) A professional person that knows you well

Does my manager have to give me a reference?

In the UK, ACAS guidance makes it clear that a candidate or prospective employer has no general legal entitlement to be provided with a reference from a former employer. Generally, a request for a reference may legitimately be refused (the exception to this is for employees working within the financial services industry where references are mandatory). However, most employers are willing to give a reference in some form – although it may not be in the same form requested.

Can my previous manager give me a bad reference? 

In the UK, employers are under a legal duty to take reasonable care to ensure that information provided in a reference is true, accurate, fair and does not give a misleading impression, whether by omission, nuance or innuendo (Bartholomew v London Borough of Hackney [1999] IRLR 246).

ACAS guidance advises employers to base any opinions they have on fact. Your previous manager could therefore give you a bad reference, if it is based on facts. As an example, this reference would not be based on facts:

“Charlie was a poor employee. I do not recommend that you hire them.”

By contrast, this reference would appear to be based on facts:

“Charlie was frequently late. In 2017 she was at least 10 minutes late for 31 of her 200 working days, and in 2018 she was at least 10 minutes late for 27 of her 200 working days. She also failed to adhere to the office dress code (business attire) which she was provided with at the outset and reminded of on many occasions.”

Where the person writing the reference has taken reasonable care to base their opinions on facts, it will be acceptable (Hincks v Sense Network Ltd [2018] EWHC 533 (QB)).e

Having said all of that, very few employers will provide a bad reference because this exposes them to risk. Instead, it is very common for employers outside of the financial sector to simply confirm dates of employment and job title. Some employers will follow this with a statement that nothing should be assumed from the fact that they have not answered all of the questions put to them.

Should I get the permission from a reference? 

You should always contact a reference and ask them for permission before you include them on your CV. Not only is it polite, it’s also better to have them aware and prepared in case an employer contacts them. Of course, if you’re job hunting whilst working and your employer doesn’t know, you may wish to hold off asking them for a reference until you’ve been offered a job.

See also: How to write references in a CV.

Click here to read the ACAS guidance on CV references.

Click here to find your perfect free CV template.

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