Reference check: Keeping professional references updated

Many people don’t give much thought to their professional references — until they need them. At that point, there’s often a mad scramble to find current contact information for former supervisors, clients, and that one guy you used to work with. Then, once you track them down, there’s no guarantee they’ll even remember you — or your work — all that well.

Compiling great professional references doesn’t have to be complicated. Use these tips to keep your reference list polished and ready for that next opportunity.

Build good relationships

Career counselor Elizabeth Shrimpf
Elizabeth Schrimpf: Maintaining relationships is key to good professional references.

Building a good reference list is first and foremost about building good relationships. It is appropriate to ask current and former supervisors, coworkers, and professional contacts to serve as references if you’ve kept in touch and they can provide an accurate representation of your abilities. Connecting through LinkedIn or at meet-ups or conferences will help you build your reference network. Remove anyone from your list with whom you’ve lost touch or who can no longer speak about your current skills.

Seek out a supervisor

You don’t have to include your current supervisor, but you should include someone from a supervisory role on your list. Find someone at your organization that you trust to keep your job search confidential and who can speak about you and your work from a leadership perspective. If a potential employer would like your current supervisor to be a reference, contact the hiring manager and explain your situation. Most companies will accept another supervisory reference.

Use volunteer experience

Those who know you from your volunteer work can make great professional references and may speak about your skills in new or different ways. Maybe you’re applying for a job that requires leadership experience and you’ve organized a team for a local nonprofit. Ask if someone from that nonprofit will serve as a reference, and then be sure to include your volunteer role on your resume. 

Practice good etiquette

Always ask others if they’re willing to serve as a professional reference, let them know why you’re asking, and find out how they prefer to be contacted. Tailor your reference list to the job you’re seeking, listing references in order of importance. Make sure to include a brief explanation about how you know each person.

Keeping your reference list up to date and at the ready can prevent undue stress during your next job search. If you’re not currently on the hunt for a new position, don’t forget to reach out occasionally to those who could serve as references in the future. When the time comes, you’ll be able to draw from your pool of qualified contacts to create the right reference list for your next role.

Career Corner is a monthly feature written by UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Elizabeth Schrimpf, a career counselor, can be reached at elizabeth.schrimpf@wisc.edu.