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Build Your Career Get the Job

Want a Professional Reference? How to Ask and What to Expect

professional reference
Credit: RMIKKA/Shutterstock

"References available upon request" may seem traditional and outdated to include in your cover letter or resume, but professional references are still an important part of the hiring process. Prospective employers may like what they see about an applicant on paper, but they need to be sure of their potential, so they'll often call up references to ask about the candidate's job performance and work ethic.

Before submitting your next job application, it's crucial to line up your professional references in advance. But whom should you ask, and how should you go about asking? Career and hiring experts shared their advice for getting a great professional recommendation.

Assuming you still have a good professional relationship, the best people to list as references are your immediate supervisors from previous jobs, said Bill Peppler, chief operations officer at staffing firm Kavaliro. It may not be possible in all cases, but if you have a particularly understanding boss at your current job, you may be able to ask for a reference as you search for your next opportunity.

"[Direct supervisors] know you the best and can vouch for you when it comes to your strengths and work ethic," said Peppler. "Other people to strongly consider are professional mentors. If there [are people] in your company who have trained you or taken you under their wing, consider them since they have a solid understanding of your personality and receptiveness to training and feedback."

Shawnice Meador, executive director of career and leadership for the University of North Carolina's MBA@UNC program, said it's important to consider the length of time and how long ago you worked with the person. Choosing someone you worked with years ago, rather than a more recent employer, might indicate that you're trying to hide something. At the very least, an older reference may not be as relevant to the current stage of your career.

"We all grow and mature professionally over time, so referencing someone who worked with you 15 years ago may only be familiar with your previous work style," Meador said. "The more recent [your source is], the more relevant it will be for the person making the phone call."

Alternatively, if you are a student entering the workforce for the first time, you can ask a professor to speak about your academic career. Ruma Sen, professor of communications at Ramapo College of New Jersey, asks students to think critically about why the professor they plan to ask would want to recommend them. She also reminds students to be as formal as possible when asking their professors for recommendations.

"I am not particularly excited about recommending a person who cannot … write an email without grammatical errors," she said.

In some cases, when you leave a job or internship, your supervisor will offer to provide a reference for you. However, it's still polite to give that person a heads-up that a potential employer may contact them about your application. You can do this simply by emailing the person, letting them know you're looking for a job and asking for permission to provide their contact information to your potential employers, Meador said.

"Provide the person who is giving the reference or letter of recommendation plenty of notice so [they have] time to work it into their schedule," said Pat Dean, director of recruiting at factory maintenance and IT company Advanced Technology Services.

Meador also advised expressing appreciation for the person you're asking when you request a reference. However, one thing you never want to do is list someone's contact information without telling them. There are multiple problems with doing this, especially if you include it on a publicly uploaded resume. Not only are you opening that person up to unsolicited communications, but they will be blindsided when an employer calls for a reference, and they will likely be unprepared to talk about you and your qualifications. It's best to avoid that worst-case scenario by giving your reference a heads-up.

"Always ask before you provide contact information, and consider the consequences when disclosing personal emails and phone numbers," Peppler said.

Be sure to provide your reference an adequate amount of time for preparation. For instance, if an application requires a letter of recommendation, Jumoke Dada, founder of the online platform for tech-savvy women, Tech Women Network, advises applicants to request the letter at least a month in advance. "I think it depends on the relationship that the applicant had/has; ultimately, the more time that they can give the individual, [the better],” Dada stated.

When interviewing for a job, you've probably done extensive research on the position so you can discuss your most relevant experience and show that you're a good fit. Your source should know what your potential job entails so they can give you the best, most helpful reference possible, Dean said.

Meador added that you should be specific about the particular role, skill or accomplishment you want your source to highlight.

It's also helpful to remind recommenders about your working relationship. For example, Sen typically asks students about which strengths on their resume they'd like her to emphasize as well as what they've accomplished while working with her.

There are a few ways a person can give you a reference. You'll need to be clear about what you need so your source knows what to expect. Will the employer call them directly? Does the company require a letter? Know the specifics so you know what to ask your reference.

"If someone approaches me for a recommendation, I definitely want to know what it's for, how it will be shared, and how many times it will be used (if it will not live on an online platform like LinkedIn)," Dada added. "If they can provide me with basic information about their current role and responsibilities, that is also helpful. The more information they can provide upfront, the easier it will be to write the recommendation."

Regardless of whom you ask and what type of recommendation you ask for, remember, your references are doing you a favor, and you should act accordingly. If they're not comfortable providing a reference, respect their decision and move on to another source. If they agree to recommend you, formally thank them for their time and effort via email or even a card in the physical mail.

For more tips on how to ask for a professional favor, check out this Business News Daily article.

Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon.

Danielle Corcione

Danielle Corcione is a freelance writer. To learn more about their work, visit their website. They also run a blog called the Millennial Freelancer and a newsletter Rejected Pitches.