7 tips for asking for a reference
When you know how to position yourself on a resume, it can be easy to make a good impression.
But how can you prove that you are as good of an employee as you say you are? Potential employers need to know there’s some truth behind your claims. That’s why 87% of employers perform a background check, which can include checking someone’s references, when they’re going through the hiring process.
Let’s explore what references are, how you can choose the best references for your job search situation, and tips for asking other people for a reference.
What is a job reference?
A reference is a person who can describe your experience on the job. But they can also be someone who can attest to your professional skills and character.
A person who appears as a reference on your resume should either have supervised your work, worked closely with you in some capacity, or worked under you. It’s important for them to have witnessed you using your skills. If they’ve worked on a team with you, they can also vouch for your ability to collaborate with others.
Recruiters ask for references to confirm what you’re claiming on your resume. It’s easy to claim that you’re a team player or that you work quickly and efficiently under pressure. References can confirm — or deny — that the claims you make are true.
A recruiter may also want to understand what kind of person you are. Some businesses look for specific types of people who will fit with the company culture. It’s difficult to assess this from a single interview, which is why references can provide additional information on your personality and character.
References are a crucial part of any good resume. Keep in mind that if a job opening asks for a letter of recommendation, they’re asking for more than a reference. Letters of recommendation are written versions of a reference. The person providing the letter will need to write it and give it to you before you submit your resume.
On the other hand, references are usually contacted after an interview. You can add their contact info on your resume, but recruiters will rarely contact them before you’ve had a positive interview with them.
Types of professional references
You can have more than one type of professional reference ready for your resume or interview. Not everyone you’ve worked with will have the same point of view about you and your skills.
Character references, for example, can speak highly of your character. What’s your personality like? How do you cope under pressure? Are you honest or reliable?
In some cases, character references can vouch for your soft skills. Those types of skills can be difficult to assess. Some examples include:
Attention to detail
Employment references, on the other hand, can speak about your ability as an employee or colleague. They can discuss your hard and soft skills, depending on the nature of your experience with them.
For example, let’s say you’ve worked at a fast-food restaurant and put your shift manager as a reference. They’d be able to vouch for skills like:
Ability to multitask
Friendly with customers
Ability to handle money quickly and accurately
Cooking and other food preparation
But they could also specify you’ve had experiences such as:
Working in other parts of the establishment (customer service, food prep, cleaning duties, cashier, etc.)
Managing the team while the manager was busy with something else
Dealing with difficult customers
Keep in mind that these are just examples. What your references can vouch for will depend on your own work experience.
How to pick the best employment references for your resume
Not just anyone should become a reference for you. You’ve probably interacted with several people throughout your life, but they don’t automatically make good references.
Think back on your relationship with the person you’re considering as a reference. They should remember you in a positive way, but they should also have the ability to speak about your value. For instance, avoid asking a colleague from a previous job if you’ve hardly shared shifts.
Some good examples of the best employment references include:
Former supervisors, team leads, or managers: Anyone who has supervised your work in some capacity can make a good reference — as long as you’ve done great work under them.
Former employees: If you’ve ever managed someone else, those people can attest to your skills as a manager. Just make sure you have a positive relationship with those people.
Mentors: Mentors are people who’ve provided you with guidance or influence. They can vouch for the skills they’ve helped you develop, but they can also be a character reference.
Professors or teachers: Just like mentors, professors and teachers can be great character references. Depending on how closely they’ve taught you, they may also be able to speak about your skills, too.
Sponsors: Sponsors are people who work in the same industry as you and who can help you advance your career. They can open up opportunities for you. Because of this, they’ll likely be able to be a great reference.
Advisors: Advisors are similar to mentors. Just make sure they’ve had enough experience with you to be an effective reference.
Colleagues who share the same industry: You don’t have to choose a manager or a subordinate as your reference. Colleagues you’ve collaborated with can also speak about your skills and character.
People you’ve met during volunteering experiences: References don’t have to come from paid employment. If you’ve volunteered in the past, this counts as work. The people you interacted with during those experiences have seen what you can do.
Clients: Have you worked some gigs in the past, like mowing the neighbor’s lawn or babysitting for the family down the street? Clients from those experiences can be excellent references.
Here are some references you should steer clear of.
Friends and family: Even if you’ve worked with friends and family, these people will usually be biased. That’s why hiring managers don’t see them as reliable references.
Short-term coworkers: If you’ve worked with someone for a week or two, they may not have enough experience with you to vouch for your skills.
Someone who fired you: If a manager has fired you, don’t add them as a reference. They’ll likely mention the reasons why they fired you. Note that this is different from a layoff. If you lost a previous job due to budget cuts, your manager might still have a positive view of your experience at that company.
7 tips for asking for a reference
Not sure how to approach your network and make your request? Here are seven tips to help you ask for references.
1. Vet your references carefully
You may have several references to choose from. But not all references will be appropriate for the job you’re applying for.
Vet your references and choose the most relevant ones. Recruiters usually ask for three references, so don’t add more than that.
On the other hand, if you have limited references available, feel free to add the best ones, even if they’re not 100% relevant to your job prospects.
2. Ask people before adding them as a reference
Don’t add someone as a reference unless they’re expecting a call. If you get to the interview stage, the hiring manager will likely contact the references you’ve added to your resume.
Asking for forgiveness instead of permission isn’t the way to go here. You may be lucky and get a positive response when a hiring manager contacts an unsuspecting reference. But this may hurt your relationship with that person.
3. Reach out early enough
Give people enough time to respond before you need to submit your resume or go to your interview. Sending an email the night before an important interview is a short notice that usually won’t give your references enough time to find your email and respond.
Additionally, provide your potential references with helpful details about who they can expect to hear from. If you aren’t at the interview stage yet, just provide them with a general idea of what you’re looking for in your new job prospects.
4. Make the connection
It can be difficult to remember the details of a relationship with someone who contacts you out of the blue. That’s why you should specify how you know this person so that they remember you.
In your email or phone call to them, describe your previous work experience with them. You can even rekindle the relationship with a fun anecdote. It will show that you see them as a person and not just a path to your new job.
5. Send your resume to potential references
Sending your resume can help your potential references jog their memory. They’ll get to read about you and your work experience, which can make it easier to pinpoint exactly who you are.
It’ll also make sure they don’t mistake you for someone else.
6. Verify contact info for each reference
Mistakes can happen to anyone — including your references.
Double-check that your references provided you with the correct information. A simple typo in an email address or phone number can make the entire process go awry.
It won’t look good from your hiring manager’s perspective if they’re not able to contact your references. They could believe you provided them with a fake reference who doesn’t exist.
7. Follow up to thank your references
If a potential employer contacts someone on your reference list, make sure to follow up with this person. A quick follow-up can continue to nurture your relationship with this person — it also shows you value them as a person.
Thank them for the time it took to speak to your new potential employer. An email works well for this. If you’re still close to this person, you can give them a phone call, too.
If you get hired, make sure to let them know and follow up again. They’ll be happy to hear that the time they took to help you out resulted in your success. Remember to show your appreciation — for all you know, their reference could have been the deciding factor that got you the job.
Example email when asking for a reference
It can be difficult to write and send that email to make your request. Use this email as a starting point to draft your own. Remember to customize it to fit your unique relationship with the person you’re sending it to.
Subject line: Reference request - John Smith
Dear Mrs. Rodgers,
I hope you and the team at the restaurant are doing well. I have fond memories of the evening shifts and miss my experiences there!
I’m writing to ask if you would feel comfortable if I added you as a reference to my resume? If you can vouch for my qualifications as an employee and for everything I’ve learned while I worked under your supervision, I would be sincerely grateful.
I’m currently in the process of searching for a new position as a shift manager. I look forward to nurturing a team just like you did with us at the restaurant and taking on this additional responsibility. A positive reference coming from you would greatly increase my chances for my job prospects.
Please let me know if you have any questions concerning this or anything else you’d like to know about my experience that could help you provide a reference. I’ve attached my updated resume, but don’t hesitate to ask me for anything else you think would be helpful.
You can reach me at [email protected] or on my cell phone at (123) 456-7890
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