Ahh, references. Everyone needs ‘em and they’re one of the most debated and confusing aspects of every job search. Don’t worry, though, we’re here to help you out. Let us take all the guesswork out of the process for you by showing you exactly how to ask for a reference.
First off, let’s clarify a few things about your references.
You should never include references on your resume or submit a reference page with your resume; unless you are specifically asked to do so.
Now on to the good stuff. You’re in the heat of an intense job interview and the interviewer asks you for a references page. Are you prepared? More importantly, are your references prepared?
Well, in this case, the answers to those two questions both hinge on the people you are using as references. You can hand the interviewer the most beautiful references page he’s ever seen. But, if no one returns calls or responds to emails, they may as well not even be on the page.
The point is, you want to make sure your references are ready and waiting to gush about how great you are! If they are caught off guard, there’s no telling what direction the conversation can go.
Here are the steps you must take to ensure that you have a list of solid references who are ready to talk you up!
Choose your references wisely
When deciding who to reach out to, think about the following:
Are they well-spoken and able to articulate ideas with great clarity?
Do they genuinely like you?
How are you related?
What kind of work did you do together?
The answers to the first two questions must be an emphatic yes! Now, let's explore these points in a little bit more detail.
Your references don’t need the rhetorical skills of MLK; however, they need to be able to properly articulate their ideas. A solid heads-up and some preparation can help most with this.
However, we all know some people who have particularly good rhetorical skills. Getting a well-spoken individual to speak on your behalf will always help improve the effectiveness of your references.
2. You genuinely get along
Yes, your references should like you. If they don’t or if you don’t have much of a relationship at all, their conversation with your potential employer will not go smoothly. Genuine conversation is easily detectable. If your references will have to scramble to think of anything positive to say about you, leave them off the list.
3. They know you, but aren't your parents
Family members are not great references. Why? Because everyone knows they’re biased. It’s always best to use references that are strictly professional.
There are a few special cases where it is acceptable. For example, if you spent many years working directly for a family member. In those cases, make sure the reference is ready with quantifiable achievements.
Think about it. It’s not very surprising that your Uncle Jim will tell your potential employer that you’re a blast to work with. But, when Uncle Jim tells them that you were in charge of and increased sales 150%, that will reverberate with the employer.
4. Type of work
The more references you have that are directly related to the industry you’re searching, the better. Having a well-known investor vouch for your investment skills is immeasurably important. But that’s not always possible.
Character references are still important. If you don’t have enough work-related references to fill up your page, dig deeper. Even if your reference can only speak about your character, it’s still fine. Professors, supervisors, and colleagues from previous industries are all great character references.
How to ask for a reference: Examples
Calling should be your first choice if you’re close with the individual doing the reference. However, it’s often intrusive and puts the individual “on-the-spot”.
Unless you’re super tight with the person, you’ll probably be asking them to be your reference through email. Asking for a favor isn’t easy no matter who it is that you’re asking.
The email you send asking for a reference is important because it will set the tone for the overall mood of the reference relationship. Be positive, professional and friendly.
Here are some awesome examples from our professionals and from across the web:
Example from The Balance:
Subject Line: Reference Request - Janet Dickinson
Dear Mr. Jameson,
I hope you are well, and that all is running smoothly at ABC Company. I miss everyone in the marketing division!
I am writing to ask if you would feel comfortable providing a positive letter of reference for me? If you can attest to my qualifications for employment, and to the skills I attained while I was employed at ABC Company, I would sincerely appreciate it.
I am in the process of seeking a new position as a marketing manager. I look forward to continuing the work I have done in marketing while increasing my responsibilities in a managerial capacity. A positive reference from you would greatly enhance my job search prospects.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if there is any information I can offer regarding my experience to assist you in giving me a reference. I have attached an updated resume. Don’t hesitate to ask for any other materials you think would be helpful.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (111) 111-1234.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Here’s an awesome example from the Harvard Business Review:
Highlight their Qualifications
Hello, I hope you are well. I am writing to ask a huge favor — I’m applying for a senior marketing position with Merck and I was hoping you’d consider writing a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I always appreciated your perspective and judgment while working together. You have so much credibility within the product development space that I thought you’d be a perfect person to act as a reference.
Provide a Template
I have included a list of bullet points along with a draft letter you might consider using as a template. I’d like to make the process as easy as possible on you and I know it’s hard to recall details about the many different projects we worked on together in 2007 and 2008.
“No Questions Asked”
If for any reason you don’t feel comfortable writing a letter on my behalf, I completely understand. If you are willing to do so, however, please feel free to take the attached sample letter and use it as a template however you see fit. I have tried to address my core strengths as a strategic thinker and team player and I have highlighted several marketing campaigns I’m particularly proud of. To the extent that you’d like to make any changes or modifications to the letter, please go ahead and do so. I trust that you’ll include only those topics you feel comfortable commenting upon.
Further, I would welcome the opportunity to see a copy of the letter, but I of course understand your position if you’d like to keep it confidential
Here's an example from job board Snagajob:
Dear Mr. Smith,
I’m sending this email to ask you to write a reference letter for me during my job search.
When I worked for you, I think that I really grew professionally. I also feel like the experience helped me become a better employee. I know you will agree that I was always reliable and willing to learn, and I hope you will communicate that to my potential employers.
If you have any questions, please let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.
Summing up the examples...
As you can see, there is a common trend here. You want to make sure to do four things.
Emphasize the importance of their specific reference.
Explain which skills you want them to focus on.
Remind them what you did together and why it’s so important to your career
Thank them kindly!
Make sure you stress each one of those four points in your reference request and you’re good to go!
Thank your references
Do not forget to thank everyone who agrees to be your reference. This involves two parts:
A short and simple thank you note.
Staying in touch and keeping them updated on the job search.
A short and simple thank you note
This is easy. Two or three sentences are fine. Just thank the individual for agreeing to be your reference.
If you promised to provide further information upon agreement, this is also where you should do that. For example, you can give them a template or some bullet points that show them what to emphasize during their conversation with the prospective employer.
Staying in touch
Keep your references updated with the progress of your job search. As soon as you land a job, let them know. Even if you’ve been disqualified from the position, let them know too.
Professional networking and relationship building is one of the most important aspects to advancing your career. Never is this more clear than when finding professional references.
Of course, there’s not much that a really well-written email can’t get you. Now that you know exactly how to ask for a reference, your career is ready to take the next step towards success!
For more ridiculously amazing job hunting and career tips, visit the rest of our blog.
Jeffrey is one of ZipJob's co-founders and has been a blog contributor since 2016.