How To Provide a Good Reference

Agreeing to serve as a reference for a current or former colleague is a big responsibility, and you want to make sure you do it right. A reference’s confirmation that the applicant is an upstanding professional is an important part of the hiring process. So think it through carefully. You are being asked to fill an important role.  

If you conclude that you can endorse the candidate, then you are ready to move to step two in your preparation. But if you feel like you have more negatives than positives to say about the candidate, or if you have information about him/her that you see as a hiring deal-breaker, don’t agree to do this. As awkward as it may seem, it is better to turn down the request to be a reference than to provide negative feedback to a potential employer.

If you decide to move forward and serve as a reference, here’s how you get started.    


If you haven’t been a reference before, don’t worry. This won’t be a difficult conversation. But it will go smoother if you think about it ahead of time. You want to make sure that your feedback is well-prepared, relevant and honest.

Preparation is key. Sometimes these phone calls can take you by surprise. To do this well, you need to be ready when that moment comes, so jot down some notes as you think through what you plan to say. It helps because you might find yourself a bit nervous the first couple of times you serve in this capacity.   

Some Common Questions:

To get your wheels turning, think about what you would need to know about this candidate if you were on the hiring side. Also, consider these questions, as they are often posed to references:

  • How long did you work with the candidate and how were your positions related?
  • Why did the candidate leave his/her position?
  • What are the candidate’s strengths and areas of challenge?  
  • How have you seen the candidate grow as a professional?
  • What was it like to be on his/her team?
  • Do you have suggestions for how I can keep this candidate engaged or fulfilled in his/her position?

Use Examples

Think of concrete examples to back up claims you make. Examples universalize professional experiences across industries. So you may have worked with the candidate at a completely different job than the one for which he or she is currently interviewing, but if you can tell a story that illustrates why she is detail-oriented or excellent at customer service, it’s totally relevant.   

Hiring is difficult, and those who do it are eager to be assured that their gut instincts are accurate. Examples help with this. It’s good on your side, too. This way it feel less evaluative, less like judgement and more like observation.

Examples are especially helpful when discussing areas for growth. If you are serving as a reference for someone, you are likely rooting for him/her, and you sincerely endorse him/her for the position despite his/her areas of challenge. So think of a good growth story–an anecdote that shows how the candidate has evolved professionally. This will put a positive spin on that difficult question in a sincere and honest way.

With some thought and preparation, you will be ready to assume this important role with conviction and confidence.