Asking for a Reference

If you’re on the hunt for a job, there’s a possibility you’ll be asked to provide references. This could be in the form of a letter of recommendation, or a phone call made to the contact you’ve provided. In either case, there are specific protocols to follow when asking someone to act as your reference. Follow the tips below to avoid any professional faux pas!


General Guidelines


Two of our experts (Dan, a Hiring Expert at Mutual of Omaha; James, a Hiring Expert at Broadridge) chime in to offer advice on how to ask for a reference.


Prepare a list: Dan, “First, I would advise someone to make a list of anyone you might ask for a recommendation (manager, key co-workers, etc.). Then narrow down that list to about 3 or 4 references for any given job and choose wisely, choose people who can articulate and speak well of your qualifications.” 1


Ask in Advance: James, “I recommend prior to adding someone as a reference, to always check with them. I would check with past supervisors, professors that you worked with closely or mentors from an internship.”2


Say Thank You: Dan, “Once you have your list, reach out to them and ask them if they’re willing to serve as a reference. I would recommend a phone call versus an email as it makes it more personal… Make sure you thank each reference after agreeing to help you. This showcases that you appreciate their time and value your relationship.”3


Know the Requirements: James, “Employers will typically require professional references versus personal references.”4


Dan, “At this time, it be best to explain to [your reference] what type of position you’re applying for and possible skills you would like to showcase. Now if any possible reference shows any hesitation, accept it politely, thank them and move on to next person.”5


For the First Job


If you haven’t previously held a job, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask a professor to act as your reference. In this scenario, it works best to ask a professor with whom you’ve worked closely. If there aren’t any professors like this, even organization leaders or personal references like Church Leaders, Scout Masters, and Fraternity or Sorority Advisers should be fine. As long as this person can attest to your work ethic - preferably in an eloquent way - it should work for your first reference. One thing to note: do not use another student as a reference unless you’re specifically asked to provide a peer reference (which is incredibly rare in the professional world).


However, if you have any job experience at all - even if it’s not within your chosen career path - it’s probably better to ask a direct work supervisor. Ultimately, what potential employers are looking for is someone who can confirm you’ll get your job done well, and that you’re just as good in person as you look on paper.  


Switching to a New Job


If you already have a job and receive an offer somewhere else, it will probably feel awkward to ask your current employer to act as a reference for the new position - especially if your leaving comes as a surprise. Most companies will recognize the need to refrain from contacting your current employer until you’ve accepted the new position, but this still leaves you with a short window to talk to your boss.


It’s acceptable to ask your supervisor to act as a reference as soon as you place your two-weeks notice. If you have a strong relationship or are particularly sure your boss will speak positively about you, it is okay to tell him or her in advance that you’re applying for other jobs and ask if he/she will be a reference for you at that time. To be fair, this kind of relationship with a supervisor is extremely unique; in general, it’s probably best to wait until you’ve placed your two-weeks notice.


Asking someone to act as a reference can feel awkward, but it doesn’t need to be. Especially if you’re a hard worker who produces a high-quality product, an employer or professor shouldn’t mind referring you. Be sure to follow the proper procedure when asking, and thank them when they accept and you’ll be on your way to #getthatjob!


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