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Best Practices on How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference

Cheerful male professional on his phone contacting a potential reference sitting at his desk behind his open laptop.

It’s a must to ask someone’s permission before using them as a reference when you’re applying for a job. But who should you ask? And how do you make sure they’re going to give you a glowing review? 

We’ll lay out what makes a good reference and share a sample template you can use when requesting one below. 

Who to ask for a job reference

What makes a good reference? Well, for starters, someone who will speak positively about your work. This is why it’s so important that you always ask before listing someone as a reference. Aside from being a professional courtesy, you want to ensure they don’t have any qualms about recommending you for a job. 

In addition to obtaining someone’s agreement to be a reference, there are a few other boxes to check when you’re looking for people to speak on your behalf. 

A good reference is someone who has worked closely enough with you to have direct knowledge of your skills and accomplishments. It should be easy for them to describe what you’re like professionally. 

Ideally, you want references who have worked with you recently, like in the last one to three years. It may not always be possible to use your current boss or colleagues as a reference; if this is the case, look for someone from your next-most-recent job or someone else who knows your character, like a peer from within a volunteer organization or a respected community member. 

Here are some examples of people who make good references:

  • Current or former managers
  • Current or former reports
  • Coworkers
  • Industry peers
  • Mentors
  • Community leaders
  • Professors and advisors (if you’re just starting your career)
  • Colleagues from professional organizations and volunteer groups

Who not to ask for a job reference

Don’t use a manager you had a bad experience with as a reference. Whether you were fired from the job or you butted heads with them, it’s too risky that the challenges in your relationship will color their review negatively. 

Don’t use a contact from your distant past. They can’t accurately speak to your current skills if you haven’t worked with them in years. References from college should also be eliminated in favor of professional colleagues once you have a few years of work experience under your belt.

Finally, it’s a no-no to use relatives or spouses as a reference, as their opinion of you will be naturally biased. This is true even if you work in a family-run business; use someone who’s not part of the family, like a client, vendor, or non-related peer.

Professional vs. personal references

While most jobs ask for three references, some call for both personal and professional references.

Professional reference

A professional reference is someone who has interacted with you in a work setting. They should be able to speak to your technical skills, work style, professional accomplishments, and other work-related topics. Professional references help hiring managers assess whether you’re qualified to perform the job. 

Personal reference

A personal reference also called a character reference, is someone that can talk about who you are as a person: your integrity, values, and personality. Some employers use personal references to help them gauge how well you’ll fit on the team and in the company. 

A personal reference might be:

  • A neighbor
  • A leader of your church
  • A volunteer coordinator 
  • Someone you’ve collaborated with in a non-work setting, like the PTA board
  • A casual employer, like someone you babysit or pet sit for
  • A longtime friend

Once again, it’s good to change these up. Instead of offering three of your closest friends as personal references, you might list one friend, one neighbor, and one person you know from a club or hobby. 

How many references to ask for

It’s a good idea to come up with three to five people in each category (personal and professional). Most jobs ask for three, so having a few extra ensures you’re covered if someone is hard to reach or otherwise becomes unavailable. 

Try to provide some variety regarding the relationship your references have with you. For example, instead of providing three managers, you might provide one manager, a colleague, and a client to give the hiring manager a diverse perspective. 

How to ask someone to be a reference

1. Put it in writing

While it’s great to ask someone to be a reference in person or over the phone, you should always follow up by writing a recommendation request letter so it’s easy for them to find and refer back to your information. 

Include a reminder of how you know each other, i.e., for a former boss, “I worked for Schwartz Shoes for three years as a junior customer service rep.” Tell them the position and company you’re applying to and give a brief job description. 

If you plan on applying to many jobs and would like to use the person as a reference for all of them, it’s not necessary to ask for each individual position. You can make one blanket request with a statement like “Over the next few months I’ll be applying for a new role in human resources. Would you be comfortable serving as a reference during my job search?”

2. Provide your resume

Attach a PDF of your resume to your written request. This will help the reference see your career trajectory and give them a cheat sheet of your top accomplishments. 

Improve your resume by enlisting in a professional service like TopResume!

3. Offer helpful details

When someone agrees to be a reference, they’re doing you a professional favor. Make their work as easy as possible by giving them a few handy talking points. 

Cite the top skills or qualities you’d like them to focus on, which you can determine based on the job listing. It’s also helpful to remind them of an anecdote or two they can reference, like your work on a specific project. 

4. Give them an out

Some people might not feel comfortable agreeing to be your reference. This can happen for any number of reasons–they’re too busy, they have unreliable availability, they don’t know you well enough, or they don’t feel they can give you an honest, positive review. 

If someone opts out, consider it a good thing, as a negative reference (or even one that can’t be reached) can hurt your chances of getting a job.

Give potential references an easy way to opt out gracefully with a line like “I know this will require some time on your end, so please let me know if you’re too busy at this time.”

5. Confirm contact details

Ask them to specify how they’d prefer to be contacted and confirm you have their most up-to-date information. 

6. Say thank you

References appreciate hearing that their input was valued, especially if it helps you land the job. Be sure to follow up your job search with a sincere thank you email or handwritten note. 

Sample email to ask for a reference – professional

Tony,

I hope this message finds you well. Congratulations on landing the contract for the Peterson project. I’m sure that’s keeping your team busy!

I’m reaching out because I’m applying for a project manager position at Sunscape Development, and I wanted to ask if you’d serve as a reference for me. Having been my manager for three years, I thought you could speak about my organization, communication skills, and knowledge of project management software.

I have attached my current resume to give you an idea of what I’ve been working on lately. 

I completely understand if you’re too busy to take this on right now. But if you’re up for it, I would greatly appreciate it! Just let me know which phone number would be best to use.

Sincerely, 

Tonya Matthews

Sample email to ask for a reference – personal

Hi Raina, 

How are you? Did your daughters start school yet? Mine is in second grade this year, and it’s been a whirlwind! Hoping things settle down a bit by Halloween. 

I’m getting in touch because I wanted to see if you would feel comfortable serving as a personal reference for me. I’m applying for a job running the front office at Robinson Dental Group. I was hoping you could tell the hiring manager about our time volunteering together in the church office. I really enjoyed working with you on the funding drive and thought you’d be able to give them a good idea of my personality.

If this is something you’d be able to do, please send me the best phone number to reach you if it’s not a good time, no worries. I know you have a lot on your plate. Either way, let’s catch up soon!

Send my best to Nick and the girls.

Best,

Christina Stevenson

Getting a strong stamp of approval from personal and professional references could be the deciding factor in landing your next job. Follow the guidelines above to obtain their permission and arm them with the information they need to give you the best reference possible.