How to Ask for a Reference

Maddie Lloyd
by Maddie Lloyd
Get The Job, Guides - 3 years ago

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It’s a pretty common practice for employers to ask for a list of references, so it’s always a good idea to be ready with a sturdy list of recommendations on hand.

It’s important to really think about who you’re going to ask and how you’re going to ask them — you want to make sure that the people you ask are willing to say good things about you. If one of your references says that you’re a lazy doofus who cares more about free snacks than getting your work done, well, you probably won’t get the job.

It’s important to actually ask for references instead of just giving someone’s name without checking with them first. Your references need to know ahead of time that they might be contacted so they can plan what they want to say about you. Don’t blindside them, you jerk.

Here are some tips to help you ask for a reference in way that people (hopefully) just can’t refuse!

Who Should I Ask?

Make a list of three to five potential references. Employers typically ask for three references, but it’s good to have backups on hand in case someone doesn’t respond in time or doesn’t want to give you a reference.

Ask people who are familiar with your previous work experiences and your qualifications. These people can be supervisors from jobs or internships, co-workers, or even people you’ve supervised in the past. Organizations you’ve worked with for volunteer experiences can also be great references.

Make sure to choose people who will say positive things about your qualifications and your character, and it’s always good to ask someone who can explain your credentials clearly to an employer. If possible, try to ask people who have supervised or worked with you in positions that are similar to the one you’re applying for.

How to Ask the Big Question

Don’t worry, this isn’t a marriage proposal — your personal life isn’t going out the window just yet. Even though you’re not asking someone to marry you, how you ask this question can still have a pretty big determining factor on your future. Here’s how you can avoid screwing it up:

If you’re asked to give a list of references, you can ask by phone or email. Email is a good option because if someone wants to turn you down it’s easier and much less awkward to do so by email rather than telling you in person. Most people like to avoid awkward situations and email is an easy way out.

Don’t just get on your knees, give your best sad puppy dog eyes and beg, “Could please you write a reference letter for me?” Even if you are this desperate, try not to let it show.

Instead, say something like, “Do you feel that you know my work well enough to provide me with a positive reference?” This is more professional and gives your reference an out if they don’t feel that they can give you a good enough reference. It also saves people from having to take phone calls from employers that they didn’t sign up for.

If someone seems less-than-stoked to give you a reference, just thank them and move on to the next person on your list. Don’t pressure anyone who seems reluctant to give you a recommendation, unless you’d like to get a bad or weak recommendation. This is a quick and easy way to not get a job offer.

Again — don’t list someone as a reference without checking in with them first. You don’t want to risk the possibility of someone not giving you a glowing recommendation or having your prospective employer doubting the reliability of a less-than-solid recommendation.

They Said Yes! What do I do Next?

Securing a recommendation is a great feeling (just try not to kiss your referencer, you weirdo), here are the next steps you can take to get the best reference possible:

1. If the person you ask for a reference from responds positively, offer to share your resume or cover letter with them so they have up-to-date information on your qualifications and experience.

2. Give your reference an idea of the type of job you’re applying for, it might be helpful to even just send them the job description provided by the employer. This will help your referencer decide what skills and characteristics they should emphasize. Try to refresh their memory of projects you completed successfully and other accomplishments you achieved under their supervision.

3. On the other hand, try not to weigh them down with a ton of information. Even though it’s good to refresh their memory, a genuine recollection of how awesome you are will be more credible than reading a script. Remember – they’re giving you a reference, not auditioning for a Shakespeare production.

This will be all that’s left of your reference if you weigh them down with too much information.

4. Before submitting your references, it’s a good idea to check in with them and confirm their current titles and contact information to make sure that the information you give is up-to-date and that they can be reached by your prospective employers. It’s also a good move to ask how they would prefer to be contacted. If one of your references recently angrily threw their phone off of a cliff, it would be really unfortunate if your potential employer didn’t know they should contact them by email.

5. After you get your confirmed references, make a list with each person’s name, job title, organization, division or department, telephone number and email address. Include a statement that briefly explains your relationship with them, for example, “Julie was my director for two years, during which time she supervised and approved two promotions of mine within the organization.”

6. Once your list is all ready to go, have it on hand to be submitted online. However, don’t volunteer it or send it out unless your prospective employer asks you for it. If your employer doesn’t ask, there’s really no need to give it out. Plus, you’ll save your references from having to answer unnecessary phone calls or emails! Everyone wins!

Examples of an Email to Ask for a Job Reference

Subject: Reference Request for Johnny Bravo

Dear Sabrina,

I hope you’re doing well and that everything is running smoothly at your organization.

I am currently in the process of seeking a new position as a content strategist and wanted to ask if you feel that you know my skills and qualifications well enough to provide me with a positive reference.

Having worked under your supervision for many years, I felt that you would you would be able to provide employers with information regarding my skills and qualifications that will increase my chances of receiving a job offer. If you feel that you can do so, I would greatly appreciate it.

I have attached a copy of my resume and cover letter and a copy of the job description for your reference. If there is any additional information that you would need to assist in your recommendation, or if you have a preference for how you would like to be contacted, please let me know.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Johnny Bravo

Follow It Up

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of sending out thank you notes or emails after people agree to help you. Make sure to let your references know when you do submit them as a reference, so they can mentally prepare to answer calls. They might even need some time to do some voice exercises beforehand to avoid any embarrassing voice cracks or squeaks (hey, you never know).

If you end up landing the job, or even if you don’t (dang, I’m so sorry), make sure to let them know the outcome and thank them for their recommendation. It’s good to let people know that you appreciate their help, and following up is a key part of maintaining a good relationship with your professional connects.

Remember to show your appreciation and keep your professional relationships strong. You never know when you might need them as a recommendation again in the future!

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