What Is a Written Professional Job Reference?

by Grace Ferguson

To help determine your competency, a potential employer may ask you to submit professional references. Some employers request actual letters, which should be written by someone with sound knowledge of your qualifications and work ethic -- typically a manager or supervisor. A negative reference can cost you the job, and a positive reference can secure it.

Job Reference Sheet

If the hiring manager is seriously considering you for the job, after the interview, she may ask you to submit a list of references. You would then give her a reference sheet that you prepared and that includes at least three people who can verify your professional credentials. The reference sheet states the reference’s name, contact information and role, such as current or former supervisor. Always get the person's permission before listing her on your reference sheet.

Content of Letter

If a potential employer says to submit written references, the person providing the reference describes your professional qualifications and skills in an actual letter. The document may be several paragraphs long, but typically no more than one page. The writer should mention how long he has known you and in what capacity, your general duties and how well you performed them. The letter should include concrete examples of your achievements and skills and hint at your character in some way, such as by saying you are reliable and trustworthy. The letter must be completely truthful and should not embellish your capabilities or qualifications.

Basic Letters of Reference

Some companies restrict references to verifiable data, such as job title and employment dates. This letter is usually only a few sentences long, sticking to the bare minimum. Employers generally implement this policy to protect themselves against lawsuits. An employer might be liable for defamation if the reference is false or misleading and has hurt the candidate's reputation and self-esteem, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The damage to reputation has to be tangible, such as causing loss of employment or money.

Contacting Your References

Most people will view your request for a reference as a compliment, according to Taunee Besson, president of Career Dimensions, an education and career-planning solutions company, so asking for a reference should not be difficult. Besson states that conversing with the person about what she will say to potential employers is the tricky part. If you believe you are a serious contender for a position, contact your references to relay the qualifications, skills, character traits and experience the job requires. This puts you and your references on the same page.

Avoiding Unreliable References

To avoid receiving an unreliable reference, do not ask anyone who cannot speak authoritatively on your qualifications and work ethic to write the letter. If you are not sure what type of reference the person will provide, ask him whether he feels he knows your work well enough to speak positively about it. Based on his response, you can decide whether to use him as a reference.


A potential employer might extend reference checking to employers who are not listed on your reference sheet by calling your current and past employers listed on your application form and resume. If you are currently employed and do not want your employer to know you're job hunting, tell prospective employers not to contact your current employer for a reference.

About the Author

Grace Ferguson has been writing professionally since 2009. With 10 years of experience in employee benefits and payroll administration, Ferguson has written extensively on topics relating to employment and finance. A research writer as well, she has been published in The Sage Encyclopedia and Mission Bell Media.

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