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Request a Reference: Who and How to Ask

When you’re being considered for a job, having effective references can increase your chances of being hired. Knowing who to ask and how to ask for a reference is one key to your job search.

Test your reference knowledge with the following True or False quiz:

  1. A reference is someone who knows you and can tell an employer about your character, skills and work experience. True or False?

  2. Most employers don’t check references. True or False?

  3. Once someone has agreed to be your reference, you don’t need to contact him or her again. True or False?

  4. You should line up your references before you begin your job search. True or False?

How did you do? Take a look at the correct answers below:

  1. True. Your best references will be people who know you and have worked with you, such as a supervisor or manager. They can tell a potential employer about your experience, skills, accomplishments and work ethic.
  2. False. Most employers will follow up with at least 3 of your references if they are seriously considering you for a job.
  3. False. It’s good manners and professional courtesy to contact your references each time you provide their name to a potential employer.
  4. True. Even though you usually give an employer your references at the end of an interview or when you’re being considered for a job, it’s a good idea to begin gathering references before you start your job search.

Check out the following suggestions for more information on the who, what and how of requesting references.

Who should you ask to be references?

Start by making a list of people who have positive things to say about your character, skills and experience. If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, think of recent and former employers, supervisors, managers, co-workers and clients. If you’re just starting out, think of teachers, coaches, group leaders, neighbours, community elders or volunteer and religious or community leaders.

Next, for each person on your list, answer the following questions:

  • What’s your relationship with this person? Your reference list should include at least 3 people who have supervised you either at work, at school or in a volunteer role. A reference from the company president may look impressive, but unless you’ve actually worked closely with this person, it’s better to request references from people who are familiar with your work.
  • What kind of job are you applying for? Can this person evaluate whether your skills are a good match for this job? 
  • How recently have you worked with this person? Potential employers tend to focus on your most recent work experiences. 
  • How strong are this person’s communication skills? Can this person be easily understood in a letter or a phone conversation? 
  • What will the person say about your background and performance? Will this person give a positive description of you and your abilities?

Based on your answers to the questions above, choose 3 to 6 people from the list to ask for a reference.

If you’re concerned about your references, check out Unavailable or Problem References? What You Can Do.

What should you ask for?

Ask each of your 3 to 6 contacts for either an employment reference or a character reference.

An employment or performance reference is usually given by a former employer. It often includes the length of time you worked for the employer, your job title and description and details of your skills, experience and accomplishments. It may also refer to your character, especially in the area of work ethics and attitudes. Keep the following points in mind when you’re asking for employment references:

  • Before you ask your current employer for a reference, think about how your organization views people who change jobs. For example, do supervisors in your organization support employees who move to other jobs? Or are people who change jobs considered disloyal? If you think your supervisor may not support you, it may be best to keep your job search confidential. In that case, you could ask a co-worker or client at your current job for a reference if you’re sure they’ll keep your request confidential.

  • Because of potential legal issues, some employers will only confirm basic employment information for former employees, such as dates, position and salary. Even though it’s simply company policy and not a reflection on you or your work, this kind of reference can sometimes be mistaken for a bad reference. If one of your references is restricted in this way, ask them to tell potential employers that this response is company policy and no reflection on your performance. To find out more about this situation, see Giving a Reference.

character or personal reference is typically provided by someone outside of the workplace who has known you for several years and is not a family member. Character references describe your personal qualities and may also refer to tasks you’ve performed in your community or at school.

How do you ask?

Follow these suggestions:

  • Ask for a reference in person or by phone or email.

  • Find out if your contacts will give you a positive reference. Unless they can enthusiastically say positive things about you, you’re better off asking other people. Give your contacts a way to say “no” if they’re uncomfortable providing a positive reference. Ask questions like, “Do you feel you know me and my work well enough to be comfortable giving me a reference?” or “Do you feel comfortable giving me a good reference?” If your contacts say “yes,” you can be reasonably sure they’ll say positive things about you.

  • A reference letter—sometimes called a letter of recommendation—can be useful if an important reference is no longer with the same organization, has retired, or is located out of the province or in another country. Ask for this kind of reference by email or letter. It’s important to note that most employers prefer to talk to references by phone.

  • Ask whether your contacts would prefer to provide their references to potential employers by phone or email. Note their preferences.

  • Create a list of references to provide to potential employers. Make sure this list includes up-to-date information for each reference, including name, position, company, address, phone number, email and how they prefer to be contacted. It’s also a good idea to briefly describe the reference’s relationship to you—for example, immediate supervisor, client, neighbour or teacher.

Help your references help you

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when working with references:

  • Contact the person and ask for permission each time you want to use that person as a reference. 
  • Give your references enough time to respond to requests from potential employers. Allow references at least a few days to prepare for a phone call and 2 weeks to provide a letter of recommendation. 
  • Provide your reference with an up-to-date resumé or summarize your skills and accomplishments and the work you did for him or her. 
  • Describe the position you’re applying for and the skills needed. If possible, send a copy of the job posting. 
  • Make sure you both agree about the details of why and how you left your job. Your explanation must be the same as your reference’s. It should be as positive as possible. 
  • A potential employer may ask both you and your reference about your perceived weaknesses. Tell your reference about any steps you’ve taken to improve your performance. 
  • Let your references know how your job search is going.

Thank your references

Your references are giving their time to help with your job search. Whether or not you get the job, it’s important to thank them each time you use their names. If a reference writes a letter for you, a letter is the appropriate way to say thank you.

Keep your references current

Maintaining and building your reference list is a good way to nurture your network:

  • Share your success. Let your references know about recent projects and accomplishments. 
  • Stay in touch with your references. Call, email or connect via a professional networking website such as LinkedIn
  • Each time you leave a position, ask for a letter of recommendation or a reference. 
  • Stay on good terms with past employers. Don’t burn your bridges. 
  • Keep a compliments file in your portfolio that includes positive performance reviews, letters of praise or thanks and testimonials from clients and customers.

Value your references

Good references are essential to a successful job search. People who give you a reference are doing you a favour. By treating them in a polite and businesslike way, you show them that you value their support.

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