How To Ask Someone To Be Your Reference

By Chris Kolmar - Aug. 28, 2020

Before figuring out how to ask someone to be your job reference, let’s take a step back and examine what a reference is.

Sure, you think you know the answer, it’s someone who will tell a potential employer that you’d be great for the job. Right?

Well, yes and no.

Of course, you want your references to say positive things about you but having your grandma or your best friend be your reference is probably not going to help you. In fact, it might make you look bad and leave the employer wondering if you couldn’t find a single professional colleague to vouch for you.

In this article, we’ll give you some tips on asking for a reference, even in the most awkward situations (like when you’ve just quit your job), that should help you get a new job. In most circumstances, you’re going to want to avoid asking friends and family to be your reference. Even if you’re applying for your first job and you’re still in high school, try asking a teacher, guidance counselor, team coach, religious leader, or any other person who knows about your character but has a bit of personal distance.

What Is A Job Reference?

We touched on it above, but job references can be a few different things. In some situations, the employer will want to have the names, titles, and contact information of your references. Refer to the following reference example when collecting information.

Ms. Jane Doe, Vice President of Human Resources
222 Business Drive
Albuquerque, NM 87101
janedoe@email.com
(555) 123-4567

Other times, they might want to know the relationship of the reference to you. Frequently, this will be your direct supervisor, possibly a co-worker, or it could be a teacher or other person.

While that is a standard reference and you don’t need to do anything beyond getting that person’s authorization to use them as a reference, you might find some employers want a letter of recommendation. This is a type of reference, but it requires quite a bit more from the referee. If you’re asked to get letters of recommendation from someone, there are a couple things to keep in mind.

  • You want to make sure the person is going to positively speak about you

    Job type you want
    Full Time
    Part Time
    Internship
    Temporary
  • This person needs to know enough about you to write a letter on your work habits and accomplishments

  • Try to find someone who you think will comply. Even the most well-intentioned people can be scatterbrained or simply not have time to get around to writing a letter

Why Do You Need a Job Reference?

If you’re wondering why you need a job reference, especially when everybody picks people who speak favorably about them — you’re not alone. That’s a really common question.

Let’s put it this way, every expert on hiring will recommend that companies ask for references and that they follow up. The main reason is that people lie, especially on their resumes. While most people can find a co-worker or a boss that will say they did a good job, not many people can convince their old boss to lie about what they did or how they did it. References can be really important when it comes to weeding out bad employees.

References also give employers or recruiters another perspective on the job candidate. While you think your boss will speak highly of you, you don’t actually know what he or she will say.

There are also times when someone looks great on paper but didn’t interview well. A reference can help there. Or, on the opposite end, the candidate may do great in the interview and have everyone eating out of their hand, but their resume is lackluster. The right reference can shed insider light on the candidate’s job performance.

As far as you’re concerned, you need a reference because the employer asked for one and you need someone on your side to help clarify any inconsistencies and basically be on your side.

How to Ask for a Reference, In Person, by Email, or on the Phone

Before diving into how to ask, it’s crucial that we spend a minute determining what format to use when you ask. There is no hard and fast rule here, it’s really a matter of comfort for you and the person you’re asking.

If you see someone regularly then asking in person is probably practical and comfortable for both of you. If you no longer see someone regularly, then a phone call or email will work — if you know their preference for communication, that can help. It used to seem a bit impersonal to ask for a reference through email but today that’s totally acceptable.

Just a word of advice here, if you’re in a situation where you don’t want anyone else to know that you’re looking for a new job — like you’re still working and don’t want to quit until you have something lined up, then it’s typically best not to ask for job references at your current job and, if you do have someone you can trust and want to ask at your current job, don’t ask in an email that might be monitored by HR or easily shared with anyone else.

How to Ask for a Reference

Now that we’ve handed what medium you’ll use, and it could change for each person you ask, lets get into it and talk about nitty gritty aspects of asking for a job reference.

  1. Choose your reference carefully. This cannot be overstated as it’s probably the most important part of the procedure. You have to be very confident that the person you ask believes in your abilities and can articulate that. You also want to make sure they’re not prone to office gossip (to potential employers or co-workers) and have an air of believability. Put yourself in the employer’s shoes — would you trust what this person says?

  2. Ask in advance. This is such an important job reference tip it should come with a flashing sign. Sure, you could assume that Mr. Boss will give you a glowing recommendation, and maybe he would — if only you had asked first! No one likes to be caught off-guard. In this situation it’s considered incredibly rude and unprofessional — which is not going to go over well to a potential new employer.

  3. Be respectful and don’t assume. Never assume that anyone will say yes. Even if you’ve been an incredible employee, they might not want to let you go, they don’t have time, they hate giving references — there are a number of reasons why someone wouldn’t want to be your reference so you shouldn’t expect a yes and you shouldn’t be too upset if they say no. That said, it’s crucial that you ask and do so in a respectful way.

  4. Follow up. If you haven’t heard about the job, you can ask your reference if they’ve heard from them. This is a nice way to stay on top of the situation. A follow up is also the perfect time for you to say thank you if you’ve been offered the job.

Example Email Asking For 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 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.

Regards,

Johnny Bravo

How To Ask For A Reference If You’ve Quit

So, this is awkward. You just told your boss you don’t want to work there anymore and now you want a job reference. Sometimes this situation can get out of hand, at least out of your hands, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But the best approach is to be incredibly polite and professional when you quit. Let your employer know that you enjoyed working there, you respect their opinion, and you’d like it if they would be a reference for you. Heck, they might say no but then again, they might say yes. It’s worth a shot.

How to Ask for a Reference if You’ve Been Fired

Even more awkward than saying I quit and asking for a reference — being fired and needing a reference. If you’re being downsized or your company no longer needs your services, hold back the emotion and politely ask if they’d be willing to be your reference. In these situations, if you’re being let go because of the situation and not anything you did, people are usually more than willing to help you find employment by being a reference.

If you’re being let go from your job because you did something wrong, then asking for a reference might not be in your best interest. Many employers are hesitant about giving bad references, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to give a good one, or even a neutral one. If you’re leaving on bad terms, then it’s best to cut ties and walk away.

Asking for a Job Reference if You’ve Never Had a Job

We touched on this topic a bit before when we discussed who the appropriate people to ask for a reference were. It’s true, the more jobs you’ve had, the more opportunities you have to find excellent references.

This does leave first-time hires a little out of the loop, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t get the job or find good references. Remember the list of people above, look for teachers, counselors, coaches, church leaders, leaders of other organizations you belong to, even your neighbor who has you mow her lawn or help with odd jobs can be a great reference.

Quite frankly, employers really want to see that you can produce a list of people who will vouch for you. Just remember, even though you’re new at this, you still need to ask professionally and politely and thank anyone who says yes.

Following Up After Asking For A Reference

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 connections.

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!

Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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