Work references in America: How to get them and why you need them

by Adriana Stein
November 01, 2020

Work references, who needs ‘em? Well actually everyone does when applying for jobs in the US. In addition to being listed on your CV, you should also prepare letters of recommendation for those contacts in case they are needed in the future. 

So now let’s jump into why work references matter so much in America and how to get them.

Why work references matter in America

American culture places heavy weight on references. In fact, 80% of employers even contact references when evaluating potential employees and 69% percent of employees changed their minds after talking to them. So you not only need references, you need good ones that will back up the letter they’ve provided you with if contacted.

No matter whether you’re on the job hunt, already have a job and may want to change later, or are only just starting out high school and will only work in the future, work references matter! In addition to jobs, they can be used for getting into college (university), applying for scholarships, and even getting apartments. So it’s time to start building your network now and leave yourself plenty of choices and time for later.

How to get work references

When starting out, it may sound like an avoidable nuisance to ask your supervisors for work references. But it is and will remain necessary, so it’s time to bite the bullet and get used to asking. In my personal experience, if you do so politely, most people are happy to oblige.

Ask the right people

Yes it may indeed be easier to get work references from your mom, younger brother, and favourite uncle, but that is not who you should ask. When employers are considering hiring you, it’s not only your skills they are checking, but also the standing of your references. 

A few examples are:

  • College professors
  • Teachers
  • Clients
  • Supervisors
  • Academic advisors
  • Colleagues (who worked directly with you)

You also want to make sure that you ask someone who you know will give you a good reference, is reliable, and is open to being contacted later on.

Give them plenty of time

Never wait to ask for a reference until the time you actually need one. By then, it may already be too late. This is because people who are the best references are the ones who have known you over an extended period of time and who are the most willing to input the effort it takes into writing letters of recommendation. It’s better to ask in advance and save their reference for later, rather than be in a hurry and miss submitting their reference at all. 

If someone needs to write an original letter of recommendation for a specific purpose, try to give them at least 30 days to do so.

Share all the necessary info

The more information you can give them about why you need the reference, the better. If you are just listing their contact information on your resumes, you should give them a heads up that they might be contacted for x,y,z types of jobs. 

If you need a letter of recommendation from them, there are two useful options for this. One is that you provide a list of bullet points for what you need to do into the letter and they write it themselves. The second is that you draft a version of the letter for them to approve (and edit if necessary) and sign. This option also ensures that they use the correct format. I found that many of my references preferred the second option, because it was a lot less work for them. But if you can get someone to write their own version, it may come out much more authentic.

Ask for a reference when you change employers, departments, or schools

I mentioned above to ask for work references in advance of when you’ll need them, so the perfect way to do this is to get them any time you change employers, departments, or schools. Create a list of potential references from those around you who are most suitable and ask them both if they’re ok with writing letters of recommendation and being listed on your resume. 

Always ask for more than you need, because in case someone says no, then you have a back up person. Once you have those down pat, then voila, they’re already done the next time you need them. Less work for you and less annoyance for them.

Stay in touch with your reference network

As time goes on, that list of references may need refreshing and upkeep. Some people may have changed jobs and may no longer be applicable as a work reference or your work together may not be as fresh in their mind. It’s a good idea to maintain contact with your most important work references so that they still are comfortable acting as a reference. One tactic I use is to send them a Christmas card with a small gift and a message that relates back to how much you enjoyed your work together. This way you stay on top of mind and they also get something a bit more personal for the holidays.

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