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How to Give a Good Verbal Reference

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A good reference can mean the difference between getting the job and getting passed over. If a former or current employee asks to list you as a reference, be prepared to do your best to help her get that job. Most prospective employers will call to ask for either an employment reference, which is mainly performance-based, or a character reference, which describes personal qualities and general attitude. Whichever you are asked to provide, be prepared to give the best verbal reference.

Answer the questions asked by the reference-checker to the best of your abilities and provide an accurate and honest evaluation of the employee in question. Cite factual data whenever possible, according to your employment records; for example, rather than say that the employee rarely called in sick from work, state the number of times the employee called in sick annually.

Avoid generalizations. Be as specific as possible when you describe the employee. Rather than simply assert that the employee was a hard worker, give examples of the number of projects she completed, special assignments she handled, and the overall quality of her performance. Be as detailed as you can.

Keep your statements purely professional when you give an employment reference. Regardless of whether the employee was a personal friend or someone with whom you did not quite see eye to eye, restrict your remarks to information regarding the workplace and the employee’s performance. Statements about the employee’s attitude toward work should not be followed up with your personal opinion of her personality, unless it is directly relevant to her prospective job or if the reference-checker asks specifically for that information.

Offer information about the employee’s personality and character, as necessary, if you are providing a character reference. You will likely be asked specific questions about your personal judgment of the employee’s character and suitability for the position, particularly if she is seeking a volunteer position.


Inform the employee ahead of time if you cannot provide a good reference. If your honest evaluation of the employee is lukewarm or negative based on her work performance, tell her that. The employee may choose not to list you as a reference based on this information.


Brush up on laws regarding references once you have agreed to serve as an employee’s reference. Keep in mind that you are not permitted to disclose personal information about the employee, for example, regarding her medical status or social situation.