The dos and don'ts of asking for a reference

Apr 27, 2022

4 mins

The dos and don'ts of asking for a reference

Your job interview is just wrapping up, you’ve gone over your best skills with the interviewer, and you’ve discussed what you would bring to the position. All of a sudden, they throw you a curveball: “We really like your application, but would it be possible to provide us with a reference?”. If you don’t want to freeze when you hear this question, learn to ask for references.

A reference from a former superior or colleague can be the deciding factor behind your job application: a reference letter can provide future employers with an outside opinion about you that positively details your professional track record as well as your professional and personal qualities. So, if you’re looking for a job and you want your former colleagues and team members to help you shine, don’t hold back: having a recommendation in a job interview could just be your secret weapon.

But when, who, and how do you ask for a reference? What format should it ideally be in? Take a look at our recommendations.

What to do

Nurture your network

To secure a good reference, it’s important to choose the right person. This should be someone you’ve worked with in the past who can talk about you as a professional and provide specific examples.

To do this, it’s advisable to organize all your contacts in a list or planner. This should include:

  • The names of the companies you have worked for
  • The names of your former colleagues
  • Contact details (phone, email, LinkedIn account)

Be sure to update them about your current professional status and take interest in theirs too, to see whether they’ve had a career change or even check if their contact details have changed. You’ll find it easier this way to keep in touch if you need to ask for help in the future.

When the time comes, you’ll be able to ask them if they’d mind writing a reference letter or being put forward as a reference. In this case, be sure to get their consent before giving out their contact details and let them know which company might reach out. If they do agree to help you, don’t forget to thank them for their support.

Prioritize your managers

The best reference will always be one from your last job and particularly one from your boss. Remember that, beyond their connection to you, you need to choose people that can recommend you based on their position: your superiors are the people who can outline what skills you have and how you used your experience to bring value to the company. Avoid references from personal contacts such as relatives and friends.

If you’ve just finished your studies or don’t have a lot of professional experience, you can always ask for a reference from:

  • a university professor or tutor
  • former internship managers
  • colleagues or coordinators from any volunteering programs that you’ve done

Adapt references to the position you’re applying for

What skills can you bring to the role? Do you fit in with the company’s communication style and organizational culture? References are intended to clear up any of these doubts and avoid any disappointment and time-wasting for both parties.

For example, if you’re looking to apply for a community manager role at a creative company, a reference from your contact at the marketing agency where you freelanced will no doubt be more relevant than one from your manager at an online accounting suite where you oversaw communications for a while. Likewise, it’s important to remember what role you’re applying for: your references for joining a team won’t be the same as the ones for securing a managerial role.

Provide suggestions for the recommendation

When you decide to ask for a recommendation, you should have in mind what you want to be said about yourself. You can suggest ideas about the recommendation’s content, allowing the person writing it to be better prepared and ensure the reference suits your needs. Let them know about the type of job you’re applying for, your future responsibilities, any role-specific requirements, etc. This will allow them to include relevant content in their recommendation. You can also help them to refresh their memory by making a list of the projects you worked on together and specifying exactly what contributions you made.

Think about what your potential future company would want to know about you and ask your contacts to think about including:

  • Your previous responsibilities
  • Any skills you used when carrying out your duties
  • The outcome of your contributions or projects
  • How long you stayed at the company
  • Your reasons for leaving

What not to do

Produce generic recommendations

No recruitment manager likes to receive letters teeming with clichés that are void of any actual content.

Avoid common mistakes that can torpedo your application:

  • References whose content has been copied and pasted from letter templates that you can find on employment websites, blogs, etc.
  • Recommendations that are nothing more than a long list of superfluous adjectives about your character and that don’t actually give details about your professional career.
  • Overly detailed assessments. The idea isn’t to give the recruiter a complete rundown of your work but rather to offer information that will help them to see why you’re the perfect candidate.

Recycling references

Just as you shouldn’t copy pre-existing references that are not adapted to your application, you shouldn’t use the same reference for different positions and companies either. If you want to provide relevant information, you need to think about what type of references are going to be the most beneficial for each one of your applications.

Keep in mind that each person you ask a reference from may have a different perception of your skills. Therefore, it’s worth having a diverse range of contacts to reflect the varying expertise that may be useful for each specific job application.

Using only a traditional format

Not all formats are relevant for all companies. Up until now, the most common format has been a letter or document to help the company verify that the information stated on your resumé is correct.

However, you may find it useful to explore other alternatives according to the type of job and person you’re dealing with. For example, if you want to work in a company in the media sector such as a production company or a television station, it may be beneficial to send a reference in a video or a video call format, or consider suggesting a quick phone call to a manager who may not have time to be checking details in a written letter.

Seem unwilling to do the same for others

Being honest and grateful to those in your professional surroundings will help you achieve a better reputation and strengthen relationships within your professional network. To ensure people seem willing to offer their help when you need it, it’s important to remember that this process is reciprocal. Don’t hold back when devoting time to recommending a person that you’ve worked with. Remember that the next time you’re immersed in a selection process, it may well be a reference from a former colleague that makes all the difference and ultimately tilts the balance in your favor.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Jamie Broadway

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