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Request a Reference: Who and How to Ask

Effective references can increase your chances of finding the job you want. Knowing who and how to ask for a reference is one key to your job search.

Who should you ask to be references?

Make a list of people who can say good things about your character, skills and experience. Have you been in the workforce for a while? Think of recent and former employers, co-workers and clients. Are you just starting out? Think of teachers, coaches, neighbours and elders. Do you belong to a volunteer, religious or community group? Ask a leader in those groups for a reference.

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

  • What’s your relationship with this person? At least 3 people on your list should have supervised you at work, at school or in a volunteer role. You may know the company president and obtain an impressive resumé. But if the president doesn’t know your work, it won’t help. It’s better to request references from people who have supervised you
  • What kind of job are you applying for? Can this person assess whether your skills are a good match for this job? 
  • When did you last work with this person? Potential employers tend to focus on your most recent work experiences. 
  • Can this person express themselves clearly? Can this person be easily understood in a letter or on the phone? 
  • What will the person say about your background and performance? Will this person describe you and your skills in a positive way?

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

Concerned about your references? Check out Unavailable or Problem References? What You Can Do.

What should you ask for?               

Ask each of your contacts for either an employment or character reference.

You can ask for employment or performance references from former or current employers. It should include your job title, employment period and details of your skills, experience and achievements. It may also refer to your character, such as your work ethics and attitudes. Keep these points in mind when you’re asking for employment references:

  • Before you ask your current employer for a reference, consider how your supervisors view people who change jobs. Will they support workers who move to other jobs? Or will they think that people who change jobs are disloyal? If you think your supervisor won’t support you, you may want to keep your job search a secret. Instead, you could ask a current co-worker or client for a reference. But make sure they’ll keep your request a secret
  • Because of legal risks, some employers will only confirm basic employment details for former employees. These would include dates, position and salary. Even though this may be company policy, potential employers may mistake this for a bad reference. Find out if one of your references must answer this way. Then ask them to explain that this response is company policy and no reflection on you or your work. To find out more, see How to Give a Reference

You can ask for character or personal references from people outside of the workplace. They should have known you for several years and must not be family members. They will describe your personal qualities. They may also refer to tasks you’ve performed in your community or at school.

How do you ask?

  • Ask for a reference in person, by phone or by email
  • Find out if your contacts will give you a positive reference. If they can’t say good things about you, you’re better off asking other people. Give your contacts a way to say “no” if they don’t feel they can provide a positive reference. Ask questions like:
    • Do you feel you know me and my work well enough to be comfortable giving me a reference?
    • Do you feel comfortable giving me a good reference?

If your contacts say “yes,” you can be fairly sure they’ll say positive things about you

  • Ask whether your contacts would prefer to provide their references to potential employers by phone or email. Note what they’d like
  • Create a list of references for potential employers. Make sure this list includes current information for each reference. This includes name, position, company, address, phone number, email and how employers should contact them. It’s also a good idea to keep track of how you know them. For example, note if they’re your supervisor, client, neighbour or teacher

Reference letters

If your reference is about to retire or move, ask for a reference letter. Sometimes called a letter of recommendation, this is also useful if your reference has already moved. Most prospective employers don’t want to call a reference outside the country. Contact your reference by email or letter for this kind of request. It’s important to note that most employers prefer to talk to references by phone.

Check out this employment reference letter sample. 

Check out this personal reference letter sample. 

Help your references help you

Keep these helpful tips 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 reference letter 
  • Offer your references a current resumé or sum up your skills and achievements and the work you did for them 
  • Describe the position you want and the skills you need. 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. You and your reference must have the same explanation. 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 
  • Keep your references up to date about your job search

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 a fitting way to say thank you.

Keep your references up to date

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 achievements 
  • Stay in touch with your references. Call, email or connect on a professional networking website such as LinkedIn 
  • Each time you leave a position, ask for a reference or reference letter 
  • Stay on good terms with past employers. Don’t burn your bridges 
  • Keep a compliments file. It can include good performance reviews, and letters or emails of praise or thanks. Keep track of positive comments from clients and customers too

Value your references

Good references are key to job search success. 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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