What are references and how should I choose a referee?

Most applications for jobs, experience or further study will ask for referee contact details either at the application or interview stage.

What is a reference?

In the UK a reference can vary both on the policy of the organisation giving the reference and what the organisation asking for the reference is asking for. Therefore, a reference is normally tailored according to the questions the requesting organisation is asking and this is normally based around the job description for the role you are applying for.

Your referee will be asked to provide the reference directly to the employer or organisation asking for it, and this is often a form that your referee must fill in answering questions about your performance.

References for jobs may be:

  • A simple acknowledgment of facts. Employee X worked at XXXX from Date – Date.
  • Some basic facts about your job role and competencies.
  • An employment referee may be asked to assess you against certain criteria, punctuality, communication skills, attendance, skills for the role etc.
  • Or it can be more of a testimonial – recommending you to a future employer or University.

References for postgraduate study can be:

  • Facts: Student x studied at XXX University and obtained X grade
  • An academic referee may be asked what competencies skills or knowledge you should have gained from the course and your performance.
  • Additionally they may request transcripts.

When will references be contacted?

An employer (or course provider) may choose to contact your referees at any stage in the process, although it is more likely to be in the final stages due to the time this takes. If you are currently in employment, you may ask for your current employer not to be contacted until you have been made an offer.

Do I need to put my references on my CV?

On a CV it is not a requirement to add your referees details, you do not have to write available on request either.

  • The space is often better used to give more details about your skills and employment.
  • Recruiters will ask for them when needed.
  • Exceptions are where full reference details are requested in the application information or if it would be advantageous to add them.

How do I choose a referee?

Typically you will be asked to provide the names, job titles and contact details of two (or more) referees.

  • Always ask permission before you put anyone forward as your referee.
  • You may have had an informal general offer from an academic or previous employer of providing you with a reference. Don’t assume it is still an open invitation.
  • Always ask and receive a positive reply before you include their details on an application or send your referee any personal information such as a CV.

Employers may be very specific on the application about who they want and this may not fit with your personal circumstances. If in doubt contact the employer and ask if a different referee would be possible in your situation.

  • If you are currently studying then your academic adviser or supervisor should be your first choice. Choosing another academic, say a project tutor may be equally appropriate as they can talk about your work-related skills. If you are unsure who to approach ask your academic schools' administration office.
  • Your second referee could be a second academic although a current employer would provide the added selling point of demonstrating how you perform in the workplace.
  • If you need a third referee or you have no employer references you could choose someone from wider life experience. Volunteering supervisor, sports coach or head of a society of which you are a member.
  • If you are working or your work experience is relevant then you would normally want a recent or relevant employer to be one of your references.
  • Using a family member may or may not be acceptable in certain circumstances; you will need to explain the context to your future employer, they will decide if it is acceptable or not. Occasionally you may be asked for a personal reference, this will normally be someone who is in a position of professional responsibility and has known you for more than five years.

How and when do I contact and brief my referees?

Remember a referee can only comment on your performance in the context of their experience with you. Asking a favourite lecturer with whom you have no other contact is unlikely to result in a good reference, and may be refused by the member of staff.

You must contact referees before you use their details on an application.

  • They may no longer work at the organisation or be away on extended leave.
  • You need to be sure what the procedure is and which contact information to use. Some companies will only provide an HR reference which is a very basic confirmation of facts.
  • Confirm that your referree is happy to discuss your performance in the context they knew you in (student / employee / volunteer etc).

The following forms can be used to summarise the information your referee may need to know to provide you with a reference.

  • You can download and fill in the Academic reference request form to send to a University of Manchester academic (normally your academic advisor or supervisor) for a reference about your academic performance. This will help them locate your records (you may have graduated one or more years ago)
  • You can download and fill in the Employer reference request form to send to a manager or supervisor when requesting a work reference. Alternatively summarise this information in an email.

Do not send a copy of your CV unless this has been specifically requested by your referee.

Can my employer / academic referee write a bad reference?

If you have had a negative experience with an employer and feel they would give you a bad reference then it may be best to pick someone else. If this is your only employer then check with them if they are happy to give you a reference. The reference must be accurate and not contain misleading information, but they do not have to provide a reference unless it states in your contract that they do.

When approaching an academic for a reference ensure that they understand your reasons for applying for the job or course. Remember it may be unrelated to your studies and they may be unclear what to write. Having the conversation up front will ensure that your referees are happy and available to give you a reference.


  • Acceptable: Jim was rated 2 on a scale of 1-5 (where 1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest) in his most recent (state year) performance appraisal
  • Not acceptable: Jim's work was considered unsatisfactory
  • Acceptable: Hannah was given a first written warning regarding timekeeping in (state date)
  • Not acceptable: Hannah frequently turned up to work late in the mornings
  • Acceptable: Jack was summarily dismissed from the company for fighting with a colleague
  • Not acceptable: Jack's conduct at work left a lot to be desired

You can make a request to see your reference under data protection law.