5 People You Can Use As Professional References (Who Aren’t Your Boss)

I tend to really enjoy the job-application process. I have a well-made résumé, and have no problem churning out cover letters. I like going on interviews and have a pretty good grasp on how to sell myself to an employer. I have a lot to say about past academic and professional experiences. I never forget to ask insightful questions about the company and the position before leaving. It is a process I have fun with, up until they ask me to send references.

I’ve always kind of struggled in figuring out which people make the best references when applying for jobs. Obviously, it shouldn’t be my mother (although I’m sure she’d give me a glowing recommendation — she did create me, after all), and it definitely shouldn’t be the sleazy boss I had at my first job who aggressively pressured his very-underage employees into drinking alcohol at the office Christmas party, prompting me to quit without giving notice (true story).

So who should it be?

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing the only suitable references are past bosses and supervisors. But the truth is, there are a lot more people who can make great job references, and even help support your case as a potential employee better by showing your full range of unique skills. Here are the five people who you can use as a job reference besides your boss.

1. The mother you babysit for.

I spent a lot of time post-nannying job wondering why I wasted so much time on a job that didn’t even give me a good reference. But I quickly found out that leaving nanny positions off my résumé and leaving the mothers I worked for off of my reference list was leaving a huge gap in my employment history, and doing me a disservice. Working consistently as a caregiver for someone’s children — arguably the most important thing in their lives — shows a lot about what type of person you are. Having a three-year-long nanny gig shows reliability, trustworthiness, and an insane work ethic — I mean, you professionally mothered someone’s children when they couldn’t be around. If that person isn’t going to give you an amazing recommendation, I don’t know who else will.

2. A family member or friend, if you’ve worked for them.

The loophole to the “don’t list friends and family as references” is this: if you do freelance design work for your friend’s startup business, or worked long days answering phones at your dad’s law firm, they actually might be an excellent person to vouch for your capabilities to be an effective employee. My brother spent every day for a few consecutive summers working his ass off doing manual labor for my dad’s building company. He’d be silly to leave that out of the picture, and avoid using my dad — the founder and owner of his own business — as a reference. He’s seen his work ethic firsthand, and the truth is, flesh and blood aside, no parent would hire their kid to work at their company if they didn’t think they were capable. (Example: my dad never once asked me if I would work for his company — obviously.)

3. Your coworker, even if they’re your pal.

If you worked for seven years at the same mall store with coworkers who became your best friends, one of them still might be an amazing person to use as a reference. The fact that you worked side-by-side with them every day, and even became their friend in the process, shows that you are a positive addition to a work environment. Let’s be real — the people who come into an organization and don’t pull their weight don’t make friends. The ones who work hard, gain respect, and form relationships within their company are noticed, and if you were one of those, your coworker-turned-friend will definitely have something great to say about your work ethic.

4. Your professor.

Although you don’t always form close relationships with teachers and professors, (especially if you go to a huge university), there are certain times where your professor can be one of the best references on your list. I, for example, have a professor from my department who has taught four of my classes over the past few years, and they were small, intimate classes where we got to know each other really well. She’s seen my growth since freshman year, she’s seen me display a wide variety of skills, and she’s gotten a front-row seat to my work ethic in the classroom. To be honest, the professor who taught you the skills you are now using to get a job is the best primary source to vouch for you when applying for a job. Use that to your advantage — they would be more than happy to help one of their students succeed.

5. A classmate who worked on a huge project with you.

In the communication department, almost all of our work is group work. Although it is not every person’s favorite thing to work in a group on every assignment, it makes for a highly effective communication environment, and also some really close personal and professional bonds. I know off the top of my head and could list in seconds the classmates I’ve worked on projects with who are skilled, capable, and reliable work partners. I know exactly the group of students I’d put on my team if I were starting a business and needed to hire from my graduating class. The people you have worked hard with, pulled long hours in study rooms with, and created something tangible that you’ve received an A+ on with are definitely people who can tell your potential employer exactly what you bring to the table, and exactly why they should hire you.

Mary writes every day for TFD, and tweets every day for her own personal fulfillment. Talk to her about money and life at mary@thefinancialdiet.com!

Image via Pexels 

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  • Faith

    I appreciate the sentiment of this article. Truly. But, it’s way off-base. Hiring managers want to know your ability to be a good employee and to be successful at your job, and only one option on this list (the mother for whom you’ve nannied) is viable. No hiring manager or interviewer worth a damn will care what your dad has to say about your work ethic, even if it is “unbiased.” And a classmate? Seriously? Job hunting is hard enough. Don’t handicap yourself further by listing silly, useless references.

    I encourage everyone to check out the Ask A Manager blog for more info on how to choose references. It’s written by an actual hiring manager. Use people who have supervised you in a professional setting. It’s their job to judge your job performance.

    • Summer

      Agreed completely. Everyone knows that parents think highly of their own children, and nobody ever wants to hear said parent going on about how wonderful little Suzy or Johnny is. It sounds harsh but literally nobody cares how great your mom or dad thinks you are. A parent is probably the worst reference you can include on an application because it essentially screams, “please don’t take me seriously!” and is the professional equivalent of asking your mom to contact a professor because they gave you a C on a paper when you expected an A.

      If you did honest work for a parent’s business, that is truly great and it probably was highly valuable experience early on in your professional life, but you can weave that time into your resume without incorporating your parent into the list of references. If a potential employer asks specifically about that work experience and why there is no corresponding reference, you can explain that the company is owned by your parent and you didn’t feel it would be an appropriate reference. Alternatively, consider referencing someone else within the company who is in a management role [but is not related to your family].

      References shouldn’t be about listing every possible person who could potentially have something nice to say about you and your ability to complete tasks; they should be specific to the type of position you’re applying for and that is simply not an appropriate place for a friend or parent, even if you were involved with them in a professional or academic setting.

  • GemNoelle

    Hum, some of these are very questionable. My current job only accepted references from direct supervisors. I included a coworker I worked closely with on a number of projects for my third reference (including an 8 month period when we had no department director) and I was asked to replace them with another direct supervisor.

    I can’t think of any professional position that would accept a parent as reference – the only way you can get away with using a family member is if you have a different last name and don’t let on that your family. Someone like your brother can totally include his experience at your dad’s company, he would just need to include someone other than your dad as the reference.

    • LynnP2

      What if you haven’t had 3 direct supervisors? I agree that some of the people on Mary’s list aren’t the best idea, but I’ve used coworkers as references before and it’s worked out great (as in, I got the jobs).

      • meghan

        i think it’s totally fair and reasonable to use professors or TAs as professional recommenders if you’re applying 0-4 years out of school. if you did internships or had part-time jobs in school, over three summers (at a minimum), that’s at least a couple more supervisors right there. i think it’s also totally fine to list supervisors you had for volunteer positions and the like, if the work you did there has any resemblance to the job you’re applying for– when i started out, one of my professional recommenders was the supervisor of a tutoring/mentoring program i volunteered with, and that worked out great on my end as well. for co-workers i think it’s tricky– i’ve known places that have specifically asked for coworker references bc that’s obv a very different perspective/dynamic than what you have with a boss, but in most cases, unless that coworker is deeply aware of your work projects/ what you’ve accomplished, has given you detailed feedback on what you’ve done, and can speak to your growth as an employee in the time you’ve been there, they aren’t going to give me the same information as a supervisor re: your strengths and weaknesses as an employee. I’d see something like that as a supplement, not a substitute, to listing supervisors as references.

      • GemNoelle

        I was just relaying my experience. I think people just out of school can normally get away with using professiors but in my experience people like coworkers or classmates (and defiantly family members) won’t cut it.

  • meghan

    hey mary! i really like your articles in general, but i totally agree with Faith– the advice in this article is really off-base. as someone who has led hiring cycles– for both internships and entry-level positions– when i look at references, what I care about most is what you’re like as an employee, and that’s not a perspective I can get from talking to your classmates or coworkers, because you don’t report to them, they don’t supervise your work, and you’re not accountable to them for what you turn in. same goes for family– even if you’ve worked for your dad, i’m not going to consider their opinion of you “unbiased”– they’re your parent! they want you to have a job! they love you! and all those things make it highly unlikely that even if there is a real problem with how you conduct your day to day work, they’ll be forthright about it. your references should be direct supervisors or professors (TAs are fine, if it’s like a 600 person class and that TA speaks better to your work ethic than the professor can) who can speak to the skills the job you’ve applied for is requesting. i would even hesitate before putting the mom of your babysitting charges down– not that babysitting doesn’t demonstrate a host of great qualities, but if i’m hiring you for say, a research job, i want to know about your research and writing skills, not just generalities about your overall work ethic.

    trust me when i say no employer worth their salt is going to take you seriously if you list a parent or classmate as professional references. i think the topic of professional references is great, and totally one TFD can/should explore– but advice like this is deeply misleading, and can actually damage people’s job prospects. as a former hire-er, if your only references are say, your dad and a co-worker, i’m going to get the impression you didn’t make a good enough impression on a single professor or supervisor to be able to list them as a reference, and probably wouldn’t consider your resume further.