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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Ask Someone to Be a Reference

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“Iris listed you as a reference,” the caller said. My stomach dropped—Iris hadn’t said anything to me about job hunting, had she? I waffled. “Umm, I’d like to help you, but can you give me a little more information about the job she’s applying for?” The caller refused, citing privacy laws, and hung up—without my recommendation.

Iris was my former employee, and I would gladly have recommended her if I’d had any warning, but caught off guard, I fumbled. Iris had made one of the biggest blunders a job seeker can make: She provided references without checking with them first, setting herself up to look less-than-stellar when those references were called. Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.

You’ve already done the hard work of earning good references. So how do you make sure you don’t make Iris’ mistake—and that your references work for you, not against? When it comes time to provide their names and contact info, follow these simple steps.

Start Yesterday

The hiring process can unfold pretty quickly, so before you even start applying, make a list of anyone you might ask for a recommendation: your direct supervisors from jobs or internships, key co-workers, or even people you’ve supervised, all of whom should know you and your work well. A volunteer position can also yield excellent references.

Then, narrow down your list. You’ll generally need two or three references for any given job, but you might want to have one or two more lined up, since some may be more appropriate for certain jobs or skill sets.

Choose Wisely

When you select references, choose people who will speak well of your qualifications, accomplishments, and character—and who are articulate and can explain them clearly to a recruiter. Recent references are best, although there are exceptions. If a past job is especially relevant to the one you’re applying for, you’ll want to include someone who supervised you there.

Or, if you didn’t see eye-to-eye with a recent supervisor, choose someone else from the same organization who has a more positive view of your performance. If the recruiter asks, you can say (truthfully) that this is the person who knows your work best.

Ask Nicely

Once you’ve made your wish list, call each of these people (or see them in person if you can) to ask if they’re willing to serve as a reference. Email only if you must—it’s much less personal, and also less immediate. If it’s been a while since you’ve spoken to a prospective reference, briefly remind him or her of who you are and what you worked on together, and fill him or her in on your current career direction.

Most importantly, always frame your request in a way that allows the reference to refuse gracefully—for example, “Would you be comfortable serving as a reference in my upcoming job hunt?” or “Do you have time in the next few weeks to serve as my reference?”

If your prospective reference shows any hesitation, accept this politely, thank them, and move on to the next person on your list. Never, ever pressure a reluctant reference, unless you want to experience the Limp Recommendation of Death—potential employers often view even a neutral reference as negative. Ideally, you want your new boss to worry that your former supervisors might trample each other for a chance to say how great you are.

Make It Easy

Once someone agrees to serve as a reference, give them an idea of what type of position you’re applying for (you can even shoot over the job description) and what skills and qualities you’d like to showcase. It’s also helpful to email your references your resume, along with other information to refresh their memories of your successes, such as projects you worked on or reports you created. But keep it brief—your reference is busy. In any case, while a little memory-jogging context is helpful, their own recollections of your awesomeness will be more credible than a script that sounds like your cover letter.

Be sure to take a moment to confirm your references’ current titles and contact information, and ask how they prefer to be contacted by the recruiter.

Keep it Simple

Once you have your supporters lined up, prepare your reference list, a simple document that matches the font and style of your resume and cover letter. For each reference, include a name, title, organization, division or department, telephone number, and email address, as well as a sentence briefly explaining the relationship (e.g., “Carlton was my team leader for two years, during which we collaborated on four major product launches”).

Then, when you speak to a hiring manager, have your reference list ready—but don’t volunteer it or send it with your application unless your prospective employer asks for it. If your employer isn’t looking for references, there’s no reason to give out this list.

Follow Up

Demonstrate your savoir-faire by thanking each reference with a thoughtful note soon after they agree to help you. Make sure to let them know immediately each time you submit their name as a reference, so they’ll be ready if they’re called (email is fine for this). And when you score that sweet new gig, or even if you don’t, make sure you let your references know the outcome—people like to know what’s happened in a process they’ve been involved in, and following up with an update is part of maintaining a good relationship for the long-term.

So keep the relationship healthy and show your appreciation—remember, you may need to ask your references for something again one day.