How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference

Updated Oct 13, 20216 min
How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference

How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference

Caroline BantonUpdated Oct 13, 20216 min
How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference

You’ve sailed through your application and hiring process, and your prospective employer has asked for your references. What those references say can make or break your job search. Most people will be more than willing to provide you with a glowing reference, so you shouldn’t hesitate to ask them. However, you should give careful consideration to who you ask and how you ask them because there are certain etiquette rules to follow.

This article will show job seekers how to create a reference request, how to ask someone to be a reference, and how to make it easy for them to rubber stamp you as the best person for the job.

What Is a Reference?

When you apply for a job, your recruiter wants some assurance that you are a reliable candidate and a good fit for the job. They can obtain that assurance by speaking to people who have experience working with you or who know your character in the case of a personal reference.

If you become the desired candidate, the prospective employer may want to contact the people you have listed as references to ask about your work experience and character.

Where Should You List Your References?

Some hiring companies may ask you to submit a list of references with your initial application. However, there is no need to list your references on your application or cover letter unless the job application process requires it. 

In most cases, you will be asked to provide references only in the final stages of the application process and when you are on the final shortlist. At this stage, the hiring manager should inform you that they intend to contact your references. That way, you can give them a heads up that someone from the company will be contacting them.

Who Should You Ask to be a Reference?

Former co-workers, a former boss, or even friends and acquaintances are all good references. It’s best to choose someone you have worked with recently because they can attest to your current career growth and work experience.

For personal references, also called character references, choose someone you don’t work directly with but who knows you well and can vouch for your character and work ethic. This could be a client, a former teacher, someone you used to work with, or a member of a volunteer organization you belong to. Don't ask a friend, spouse, or family member to provide a reference for obvious reasons of bias.

The Right Way to Ask Someone to be a Reference

It can be inconvenient and even disconcerting to be asked to provide a good reference for someone when you have not been forewarned.  

Asking someone to act as a reference is fundamentally asking for a favor, so the more personal you can make the request, the more willing the person will be to help you. If you can talk to the person one-to-one, that is ideal. Also, the fact that you are obviously looking to change jobs is likely to be confidential, so a discreet conversation is a good way to keep things on the down-low.

If you cannot talk to the potential reference in-person or by phone call, email is fine. Just be sure to compose a polite letter and give the person your contact information and the required background for the job. We'll go into that later.

LinkedIn is not a good way to ask for a reference because it is too impersonal. Below is a sample email template requesting a reference, followed by some pointers when asking for references.

Sample Email Requesting a Job Reference

Subject: reference request for [job title] with [company xyz]

Dear Mr. Dwyer,

I am being considered for the position of [position] at [company xyz] and I was wondering if you would be comfortable providing me with a reference.

I worked with you at [Former Company Name] for [duration of employment], where I learned significant skills and competencies under your guidance. I believe that you are in a unique position to provide my potential employer with a fair report of my reliability and suitability for the position. 

I attach a copy of my current resume highlighting my career progression since I’ve worked with you. Let me know if you need any other information. If you are willing to act as a reference, please let me know how and when you prefer to be contacted.

Your sincerely, 


Tips for Choosing and Approaching a Reference

1. Choose Wisely 

You want a potential reference to talk enthusiastically about you and to sing your praises. So, make sure you pick someone who you have worked well with in the past and you know will champion your cause.

Also, consider the new job you are applying for, and try to find people who can speak to your appropriateness for the new position. For example, if the job is in IT, an IT superior  you recently worked with would be a great reference.

Lastly, the best references come from articulate and good communicators, so factor this into your selection.

2. Ask Wisely

Don’t assume that someone will be willing to give you a character or professional reference. They might prefer not to for many reasons. They might be extremely busy, or they might feel that they cannot do you justice. Always be diplomatic and give them an out by saying something like, “Would you feel comfortable serving as a reference for a position I'm interviewing for?" 

3. Make it Easy for the reference

You can make the process easy for your reference by asking them how they would like to be contacted and letting the hiring manager know their preferences. Some people might prefer to be contacted by email, others might prefer to be contacted by phone. A reference might have travel plans or certain time constraints. Be sure to ask about these and communicate them to the employer.

Also, give your reference some background about the job that you are applying for. Give them a copy of the job description and your resume to refer to. You can even give them pointers as to what you would like them to say. For example, you can’t ask them to say what a fantastic coder you are, but you could ask them to talk about your coding skills or your ability to lead a project if they have the opportunity.

4. Send a Thank You Note

If you land the position, and even if you don’t, it’s polite to send a thank you card to your references. In some cases, it might be hard to know if and when a reference is contacted, but you can always check with human resources or the hiring manager to find out who they spoke to. Ideally, your note should be personalized and handwritten.

Your reference will appreciate hearing whether you got the job, and your efforts will encourage them to act as a reference in the future.

What About Recommendation Letters?

It’s a good idea to always ask for a letter of recommendation if you leave a job on good terms. If you receive one, you can always contact the provider later and ask them if they would be willing to talk to a prospective employer if need be. Just be sure to always notify a reference if a prospective employer might contact them and to give them a little background so they are not caught off guard.

Follow this guide, and you will not be disappointed at the end of your interview process. Most people will provide you with a glowing reference that will seal the deal as long as you follow the etiquette for reference checks!

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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