How To Ask For A Reference

Male professional touching the word "References" on a screen

If you are job searching, a reference check is all but guaranteed to be part of the process. Employers generally check references as the last step before making you an offer or if you are one of the final two to three contenders for a role.  

Some candidates view reference checks as a mere formality, certain their references will come through with glowing reviews, but this is a misstep. Most professionals take references very seriously and you cannot assume that having a good rapport with a reference automatically means they are going to put their credibility on the line and vouch for you as a great hire. This is why it is so important to choose your references carefully. 

Here, we will answer all the questions you have about how to ask for a reference, including who makes a good reference, what employers are looking for from references, how to ask for a reference by email, and more. 

What Do Employers Ask References?

References are not meant to dig up dirt on candidates (although you would be surprised at the stories some references choose to tell!). 

Rather, they are meant to help an employer verify that the information you have provided in your candidacy is accurate and to better gauge whether you are going to be a good fit within the organization. References can also raise potential red flags that an employer would want to know. 

Here are some example topics your references might be asked about:

  • The dates of your employment and what your job was
  • What your normal job duties looked like
  • What you were like to work with
  • How you approached your work
  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • Your memorable accomplishments
  • Any performance issues
  • Why you left
  • Whether they think this new role would be a good fit for you
  • Whether the reference would work with you again if given the chance

Hiring managers often wrap up the reference check by asking, ‘is there anything I should know about the candidate that I have not asked?’ 

How your reference answers this question can be very telling; most people will either use it as an opportunity to give you their stamp of approval with some positive words, or they will waver on whether to tell the reference checker how they really feel (if their appraisal of you is negative). 

A good hiring manager can read between the lines and tell when a reference is not sold on giving a positive recommendation. Once again, this is all the more reason to choose references who explicitly say they feel comfortable recommending you. 

Who Should I Ask for a Reference?

A good reference is someone who can vouch for your ability to do your job and work well with others in the process. This should be someone who has worked fairly closely with you for a good amount of time. 

Not every reference needs to be someone who managed you, but it is good to have at least one current or former supervisor in the mix. An ideal set of references includes a mix of people from your professional background. For example, not all of them should be colleagues who are at your same level or who are all from within a single department. You want to give your hiring manager many different perspectives. 

Some people who make good references include current and former bosses, colleagues, clients and vendors. If you are new to the workforce, academic contacts like professors or internship directors can also serve as references. 

Perhaps a more important question, though, is who should not be used as a reference? It is never a good idea to use family members, friends, roommates, or employers where you left on bad terms. By no means should you ask a reference to pretend to be someone they are not; with LinkedIn and other social media, it is way too easy to get caught in a lie (not to mention that it demonstrates terrible moral judgement). 

Finally, you should never list someone as a reference without explicitly asking them first. Not only is this common courtesy and respectful of their time, but it also helps prevent surprises by giving people the chance to opt out of serving as a reference if they cannot recommend you in good faith. 

How To Ask for a Reference

Now that you have zeroed in on the ideal people to serve as your references, it is time to get their permission. 

Though it seems straightforward, requesting a reference can be daunting. After all, you are putting your future job prospects in this person’s hands! So if you are feeling a little nervous about asking for a reference, you are not alone. There is more to it than just getting a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Take these steps to ensure that when the phone call comes, your contact is armed with the information they need to give a detailed and effective reference. 

Ask in person or via phone call whenever possible 

A face-to-face or phone conversation is more personal than an email or text message for such a big ask. It gives you a chance to catch up and fill the person in about your job search, which is helpful if it has been a while since you last talked. 

Plus, a phone call is faster and more direct than an email, which might go unanswered for days or get buried in a cluttered inbox. If you do not get a timely response, you are left wondering if they just missed your email or if they actually do not want to be a reference. For these reasons, a live conversation is your best bet. 

Tell them about the role you are applying for

Give them the Cliff’s Notes version of your job search—why you are job searching, what roles you are applying for, and what kind of responsibilities you would have. If you are applying for many different roles, give an overview of what you are generally looking for in a role. 

If you are like most people, your job search probably includes a number of applications with different companies. A lot of candidates wonder if they have to ask permission from every reference for every job they apply for. 

The answer is no. Generally, people understand that being a reference might entail several different conversations with multiple hiring managers. Asking once should cover you for the duration of your job search. 

The exception is if it is taking a while to land a job or if you are casually applying over time when you come across opportunities that interest you. In these cases, it is a good idea to touch base with your references every few months or so to let them know you’re still looking. 

Tell them why you are choosing them

Remind your prospective reference what you worked on together and share the specific qualities you think they can speak to when they worked with you. This is especially important if it has been a year or more since you worked together.  

For example, you might say, ‘I thought of you because you and I worked together on several successful design projects, and you’d be able to speak to my skills with Photoshop and client communications.’

Offer examples of things they might talk about 

Your references are doing you a favor; it is in your best interest to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes and give you a great review. Help them out by offering several concrete examples of skills, situations or accomplishments they can discuss in their conversations as your reference. 

Some ideas include:

  • Projects you worked on together 
  • Things you accomplished while you were colleagues
  • Times you were able to solve a problem
  • Skills that are relevant to your new role
  • Qualities that set you apart from other candidates

It may also be helpful to share a copy of your resume so they can see how you are positioning yourself as a candidate. 

Follow up with your thanks

Once your job search draws to a close, it is a must to circle back with your references to say thank you. If you got the job, let them know! Managers, for example, typically take pride in seeing their former reports advance professionally. 

A warm thank-you email is usually sufficient. If appropriate, offer to reciprocate by helping your contact out in the future when you can. 

Can I Ask for a Reference Via Email?

Many candidates consult with us about how to ask for a reference by email. While it is not ideal, sometimes email will be the most feasible way to reach someone. 

In this case, condense the above tips into a straightforward message, being sure to verify that you have the person’s current job title and phone number, which you will need to give to your prospective employer. 

When asking for a reference via email, it is a good idea to close with a line that asks for a response one way or the other so you’re not left hanging. For example, ‘If you are not comfortable serving as a reference or do not have the time right now, I completely understand. Please let me know either way.’ 

Ace Your Next Interview with Help from 4 Corner Resources

From finding good jobs to narrowing down references, job searching is stressful. The staffing professionals at 4 Corner Resources can ease some of the pain. We are skilled at matching candidates like you with lucrative positions around the country in fields like finance, marketing, IT, customer service, and more. 

Begin your search by browsing our open jobs or send us your resume to get connected with one of our headhunters today.

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the president of 4 Corner Resources, the nationally acclaimed staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. His mission back then was the same as it is today: to do business in a personal way, while building an organization with boundless opportunities for ingenuity and advancement. When not managing 4 Corner’s growth or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his sales and business expertise though public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Hire Calling podcast.