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Written by Karl KahlerKarl Kahler

How and when to include references on a resume

17 min read
How and when to include references on a resume
Should a resume include references? If you’re wondering about the rules that apply to including references on a resume, the standard rule today is — don’t! References may have their place in any job search, but unless you’ve taken a time machine back to the 1970s, your resume should almost never include them.

It used to be considered essential to include references on a resume — back when your dad thought a polyester leisure suit with a 3-inch-wide tie was the height of fashion. But times change, and today a resume that includes references is considered old-fashioned and undesirable — in all but a few limited circumstances. 

What happened? Did it suddenly become irrelevant if a job seeker had former employers who could vouch for her amazing talents? Did new employers lose interest in hearing from college professors who affirmed that this new grad was the most promising student they ever had?

We’ll get into the reasons in a bit. But first, just so you know we’re not crazy, allow us to quote from the first five responses we got to the Google search “Should I include references on a resume?”

  • “Job references should never be included on a resume.”
  • “[I]t is a best practice to leave references off your resume.”
  • “Unless specifically requested, references do not belong on a resume. It is almost never a good idea to include them….”
  • “As a rule of thumb, you don’t need to include references in your resume.”
  • “Do not put ‘Reference available upon request’, or the names and contact points of the references themselves.” 

And those were just the first five hits! 

If you prefer to get your career advice in a video, check out Career Coaching’s “Should You Include References on Your Resume?” We would quibble with this career coach on whether a resume should be two pages instead of one, but otherwise his advice lines up with ours 100%.

This article will explore the whys and wherefores of the now-dead references list on modern resumes — and the very few exceptions where they can be included. Buckle up, references fans, because it’s going to be a rough ride! 

Do I have to include all jobs on my resume?
Related article
Do I have to include all jobs on my resume?

Many people struggle when faced with the task, do I add all my experience to my resume? While there are no hard-and-fast rules concerning your previous employment, the following tips should help you give you a better idea of whether or not it's necessary to list all of your past jobs on your resume.

Why are references on a resume no longer used?

Sort of like video killed the radio star, we can thank the internet for killing the idea of references on a resume. The short answer is: references on a resume are usually sensitive information and should not be widely distributed due to privacy concerns. There’s also the idea of digital etiquette, which dictates you shouldn’t mention people willy-nilly, opening them up to unexpected calls and messages. 

Before the 1990s, when you couldn’t send mail without licking a stamp, resumes were relatively private documents that were printed on paper, enclosed in an envelope and dropped in a mailbox. Sure, a resume might be passed around an office, hand to hand, but this didn’t make the references’ names, addresses or phone numbers accessible to millions.

That all changed with the electronic revolution, which turned resumes into digital documents that actually could be accessible to millions. Today you can (and probably should) post your resume on LinkedIn or any number of other totally public job-search websites. So do you think your old boss would be thrilled to know that you’ve put his name, title, employer, phone number and email address in front of potentially billions of people? Probably not.

Identity theft, spoofing and hacking are real-world dangers that we all face today. “Privacy” has become one of the watchwords of the information age, a shrinking commodity to be guarded as closely as possible. Even if you want to sell your car on Facebook or Craigslist, you might not want to publish your phone number or email address for all the world to see — you want people to approach you through a private channel.

So that’s the primary reason that references on a resume have fallen out of vogue, to avoid publicizing people’s private contact information. But other reasons abound. If hiring managers are looking for references, they don’t need to have their secretaries fire up their IBM Selectric and type a letter to your last employer inquiring about your job performance. 

People today are far easier to find and much easier to contact — no Pony Express needed. And if employers DO want references, you can send them in a personal email, which unlike a resume does entail a certain expectation of privacy.

When is it OK to include references on a resume?

If an employer specifically asks you to include references on a resume, forget everything we’ve said and do it! But you will rarely receive this request, so this issue will not come up very often.

If an employer is seeking references, be sure that the employer wants the references to be listed “on your resume.” It might be a better idea to include references in a separate attachment that is not actually part of your resume. 

Every resume needs to have five components: 

  1. Header: Your contact info
  2. Summary/profile: Your “elevator pitch”
  3. Employment history: Your professional track record
  4. Education: Where did you go to school?
  5. Skills: What are you really good at?

That’s a lot of information to include in a one-page document, and most experts agree that a resume should be only one page. Two pages are sometimes considered OK, especially if your job history is so stellar that you were both an astronaut and a brain surgeon. But for ordinary mortals, no hiring manager has ever complained that a one-page resume is too short.

So references almost always present two problems: 1) Nobody was expecting them, and 2) References will usually make your resume spill over onto a second page.

Even worse, this second reference page in a resume might be totally blank at the bottom, containing nothing but references, in just a few lines at the top. This kind of spill-over is never a good idea, and it suggests that you need to trim your text to hold your resume to one page.

Resume without references

This resume has everything it needs and fits perfectly onto one page.

Resume example without references.
Resume example without references.

Resume with references

Including references often adds an unnecessary second page.

Resume with references
Resume with references.

Should I include a separate references page?

Should you include a separate references page that is not actually part of your resume? This is a much better solution if the employer has specifically requested references. Creating a separate document that is solely for references resolves the problem of putting people’s private contact info on your public resume.

In North America, the gold standard is a one-page resume. In the UK and certain other countries, however, two-page resumes are more common. But if you do choose to create a two-page resume, that doesn’t mean you should include references just because you have more room.

Provide what is asked for and what is expected. Reference pages usually aren’t required, so you’re better off using the second page of a resume as additional real estate for your employment history, educational achievements, job qualifications and certifications.

How to deal with professional references

Having said all that, great professional references could be the secret sauce that seals the deal. If you were a speechwriter for President Barack Obama, hopefully that would appear somewhere in your employment history, and possibly in your summary. But if your friend Barack has offered to vouch for you to future employers, think twice before you include his private email and personal cellphone on your public resume.

You could include this info in a separate attachment, or even as part of your cover letter. But does it belong in your public resume? Most experts would say no, and Barack Obama would probably agree.

Can I include references without their permission?

No way! You’re buying a one-way ticket to unemployment hell if you blindside former employers by listing them as references on a resume without even checking with them first.

A job search is a process, and you can’t just skip a bunch of steps. If you used to be Bill and Melinda Gates’ nanny, you can’t just put their private contact info on your resume without getting their permission first. 

If you need character references on a resume, reach out to your most promising prospects. How do you ask someone to be your reference? Explain what you’re up to, what kind of job you’re seeking and why you need a reference. If you used to work for Warren Buffett, he’s probably busy earning another $1 billion today, but he might have five minutes to dash off a note saying you were a great bookkeeper.

Speaking of which, instead of seeking permission to publish their contact info, why not ask former employers for a short testimonial about what an awesome employee you were? You can probably get far more mileage from a professional reference letter than from a phone number that Elon Musk doesn’t answer anyway.

How many references should I include on my resume?

If you are asked to provide references, three is ideal, two is too few and four may be too many. If you list references at all, providing three is a good rule of thumb. But always ask yourself whether references are needed at all, and if so whether they could be provided in a separate document.

Should I include references if my resume is too short?

No. Do not include references just to pad a short resume. If you’re just starting out in the world, like a high school or college student who hasn’t graduated yet, pump up your resume with your academic achievements, summary statement, internships, volunteer work and/or job-related skills. Tell your own story, and don’t expect someone else to tell it for you.

Should I say ‘References available upon request’?

The phrase “References available upon request” used to be popular but is widely frowned upon today. Employers will assume that references are available upon request, so there's no real need to say so. 

Resume references examples

If you do want to include professional references, here are some resume reference examples:

Resume references examples
Resume references examples

Generally, your professional references will be from companies you’ve already mentioned in your employment history, or professors at colleges mentioned in your education section. So there may be little need to explain who these people are. But in some cases, you may also want to include a line that provides more information about who these individuals are.

Key takeaways

  • Do not include references on a resume unless an employer asks you to.
  • Look for alternative methods of spotlighting a former employer’s endorsement, like a recommendation letter.
  • Never include professional references without first checking with each person you list.
  • If you do include references, list three of them.

Best of luck in your job hunt — and should any employer ever ask why you didn’t include any references on your resume, feel free to cite Resume.io as a reference!

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Build your resume in 15 minutes
Build your resume in 15 minutes
Use professional field-tested resume templates that follow the exact ‘resume rules’ employers look for.
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