3 of the Best Ways To Ask Someone to Be Your Professional Reference

Photo Credit:  VGstockstudio  on shutterstock

Photo Credit: VGstockstudio on shutterstock

When you’re considering trying a new restaurant, chances are you check out the reviews from past customers to see what they think before you make your reservation. Similarly, hiring managers use references to get a clearer picture of a candidate before extending an offer.

 Like how a Yelp review can make or break a restaurant’s success, your references have a major impact on your interview process. However, before even beginning to interview, you should have a solid list of references who can speak to your abilities and that you can pass to the hiring manager at a moment’s notice. Read on to learn how to build that list.

Whom You Should Ask for a Reference

Knowing who to ask to be your reference is often the most challenging part. The most important aspect to consider is whom you think will give you the strongest endorsement. Pick people who know you well and who will be responsive. You need them to be able to confirm where you worked, how long you worked together, your title, the reason you left, your strengths, your work ethic, and why you’re a good candidate for the role.

Typically, employers request three references from a candidate. However, it’s important to have more than just three references at your disposal. I recommend having some diversity in your reference pool, so they’re not telling the hiring manager the same things because you all worked together. Also, you want to be able to customize the references to speak on your set of abilities for a given job or industry. That means having enough choices to pull from so you don’t necessarily have to ask your food bank volunteer coordinator for a reference if you’re interviewing for an engineering role. Additionally, a few references come in handy if the hiring manager can’t reach one of your first picks.

Simply because a reference is professional, doesn’t mean it has to be from a past employer. Anyone who knows you in a professional capacity should be able to speak on your behalf. For some ideas, look at the list below.

Potential People to Ask for a Reference:

  • Former supervisor

  • Peer

  • Mentor

  • Teacher, professor, academic advisor

  • Connection from a professional organization

  • Connection from a volunteer group

  • Customer/client

  • Vendor

When leaving a role or concluding a business venture, you have a great opportunity to ask for a reference, if appropriate. If you’re finishing an internship, resigning, or wrapping up a project with certain stakeholders, clients, or vendors, you hopefully had a good working relationship with your manager to ask for a recommendation. Even when you’re leaving the role because you found another or were laid off, a good relationship should put any kind of awkwardness aside. It’s important to ask right away because you’ll lose track of previous employers and their memories of you may fade. After time, people move on, so you want the memory of how vital you were on the team to be as fresh as possible.

In these circumstances, I recommend getting a general written letter of recommendation to have on file. You could just as easily reach out when a hiring manager requests references and have them write a letter or handle a phone call then, but having them in advance might save you from emailing them down the road and hoping they remember you.

How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference

Now that you’ve thought a little about whom you might ask to be a reference, you actually have to go about asking them. While you could simply say “Would you please write a letter of recommendation for me?” or “Can I list you as a reference on this job application?,” The Balance recommends asking your connection if they know you and your work well enough to write a good letter of recommendation or if they feel they could give you a good reference.

Many people can write a simple letter of recommendation or talk to your prospective employer on the phone, but you want to be sure you’re getting enthusiastic takers who will talk about you positively. And if this connection doesn’t feel they can vouch for you (maybe it’s been too long since you worked together or maybe the relationship wasn’t that strong) or have the time to write a letter/take a call, they have a way out of the obligation.

I recommend using email as the most effective way to ask for a reference. Consider sending a brief and personable message that outlines the opportunity you’re pursuing, that you’d like them to serve as one of your references, and ask them to confirm whether this is something they’d be willing to do. 

After you hear back affirmatively from your connection, you need to prep them to give the best recommendation possible.

How to Prep Someone to Be Your Reference

They’re in, so now you have to equip your reference with the right information for them to give you a glowing recommendation.

Here are my top three tips to getting your best reference:

  1. Let them know a specific aspect of your work/strengths you’d like them to talk about.

  2. Tell them about the new position, why you are excited about it, why you think it’s a great fit for you.

  3. If they need to provide a written recommendation, write it for them and ask them to edit as they see fit and sign.

Always give them your updated resume with info regarding skills and recent experience as well as background on the role you’re interviewing for. Also share your LinkedIn profile with them. You can chat via email or phone, but it’s most important you’re both on the same page about the info you want communicated. Refreshing their memory is useful because if they provide information that’s inconsistent with the content of your resume and interviews, you could jeopardize your candidacy.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Asking Someone to be a Professional Reference

DON’T list a reference without permission: You should formally ask someone to be your reference and never assume they’d be okay with you sharing their contact info with a hiring manager. It also helps to give references you’ve used before an advance notice that they might be contacted as a reference. You can simply email them with a heads up as well as with relevant info they need to be prepared.

DO keep a list handy: Keep a spreadsheet on your computer with your list of references (ideally 5-7 people) who would enthusiastically recommend you. Record their names, titles, contact information (phone, email), and your relationship with them. This will be useful to pull from whenever you complete an application that requires references.

DON’T submit references immediately: When submitting an application that doesn’t request references, don’t submit them unsolicited. At the point when you’ve made it through to the interview process and hiring managers are interested in you on the basis of your resume and performance during interviews, employers are more likely to want to talk to your network. Offer your references at the end of the interview, or mention them in your thank you note.

DO send a thank you note: Always thank your references for taking the time to write a letter for you or take a phone call. It’s nice to recognize them and show your appreciation—it may even lease to more assistance from them in the future. Also, let them know about any updates to your employment status. Staying in touch goes a long way and you can thank them again if their recommendation helped land you the role.

Your References Matter

When you’ve made it far enough into the interview process to share references, or if your employment process requires references up front, you want to have the highest quality references possible. Picking and prepping your references requires the same about of care you would put into your resume and cover letter. After all, they can be the true deciding factor that gives the hiring manager confidence in you to extend an offer.


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