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Build Your Career Get the Job

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

Want a Professional Reference? How to Ask and What to Expect
Credit: Mathias Rosenthal/Shutterstock

"References available upon request" may seem a bit cliche to include in your cover letter or resume, but professional references are still an incredibly 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 you submit your next job application, it's crucial to line up your professional references in case a prospective employer asks for them. 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, managing partner 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," Peppler told Business News Daily. "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 many 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 looking to enter 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 take the effort to write an email without grammatical errors," she told Business News Daily.

In some cases, when you leave a job or internship, your supervisor will happily offer to provide a reference for you in the future. However, it's still polite to give that person a heads-up that a potential employer may be contacting 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.

"People love hearing nice things about themselves," she said. "Think about why you are asking [this person] in particular to write a testimonial. Mention something that you admire and appreciate about [their] leadership style, mentoring skills or support of your career. A little flattery can go a long way when you are asking a person to take time out to help you."

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 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.

When you're 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.

"Include example ideal job descriptions when possible so the recommender can highlight things about you that match those types of jobs," she said.

Additionally, it is 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 for a reminder of what they've accomplished while working with her.

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

"Be upfront and authentic about what you're asking for," Peppler said. "Tell your reference ... what you're looking for. If you're just posting it on your LinkedIn or sending [it] along with several resumes, it might be a little different than if it's for a specific job opportunity."

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 that 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. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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.