The Four Golden Rules When Providing Professional References

Years ago, I got a call from Hulu. They were checking references on a friend’s son who’d recently graduated. I’d gotten to know him a little via his mom, and had provided occasional advice when asked. He was nice enough, but, I hate to say it, appeared a little entitled. So, when Hulu’s hiring manager called, here’s how the conversation went (names have been changed, but the story is true).

“Hi Krista, this is Georgina Jetson from Hulu, and I’m doing a reference check on Elroy Hisboy. He listed you as his professional reference, and I wanted to know if you could answer a few questions.”

Guys, I hate to tell you this, but Elroy never asked for my permission. He’s a nice enough person, but he was very green, and I was concerned about his entitled attitude.

Georgina continued, “this job requires someone very detailed oriented; how would you say Elroy is with details?” My response was pointed: “Not only does Elroy miss details, he misses the big picture. He never asked if I would be his reference. Had he done so, you’d currently be having the pleasure of speaking with someone endorsing him.”


I didn’t want to bury the guy, but I have a reputation to protect, and he’d left me no choice. People depend on my honest point of view. And if I vouched for a guy I didn’t believe in, what would happen the next time there was a deserving candidate up for a great job at Hulu? I’ll tell you what would happen: my endorsement would mean far less. And I take my endorsements very seriously. When I send an email, I usually get a quick response. When I call on behalf of a client, they typically get hired.

Needless to say, Hulu didn’t end up hiring “Elroy.”

The Four Golden Rules

Here are four rules to follow, then, when a potential employers asks you for references:

1. Power of 3: Unless otherwise specified, give three references. Make sure you call those people and ask if they’d be open to being a reference for you. People are usually delighted to endorse you.

2. Full Contact Info: Make sure to include all the contact details for each reference. Ideally, you want to list people who will know the person or company you are interviewing with.

Full Name (include a Mr. or Ms, particularly if it is a gender-neutral name)
Title/Company (this would be their current company and current title)
Contact info (include email and phone)
How you know this person (if they are working at a different company, you might want to specify, “I was Jane Smith’s assistant when she was VP of development at Marvel”

Ms. Wilma Flintstone
President of Acquisitions
310-555-5555 or
I was her 2nd assistant

3. List who you reported to: At least two references should be people you reported to. If you don’t have a lot of job experience, you can certainly have a character reference. You want to have the person with the highest job title vouch for you. For example, if the president of the company will endorse you, by all means get her to sing your praises! If all things are equal, the person who has the highest level person call on your behalf will get the job.

4. Letter of recommendation: Before leaving your internship or first job, get a letter of recommendation from the person you reported to. Make sure the letter is on company letterhead, dated and signed, before you leave. Have it detail your position and why you were super ah-mazing. I find that having a letter of recommendation as part of a submission package is the key to getting an interview, because it’s like getting pre-qualified for the position.