How to Get a Reference Letter after Being Fired (Example)

Awkward? Maybe. Doable? Totally.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

How to get a reference letter after being fired

Getting fired can be a distressing experience, but it’s important to learn from what happened and move on positively. This requires asking for references, and this can seem an insurmountable task given the manner of your exit from your organization.

Asking for a positive reference after you have been fired from a job can seem tricky, but it can be done, and if you manage the process correctly, you can end up with amazing recommendations.

This guide takes you through asking for references after you’ve been fired, including who to ask, what information can be given, some tips on how to ask for references, and a template letter to use.

Why ask for a reference after getting fired

There are a few good reasons to ask for a reference after being fired.

Firstly, you might need one, as any reference can be helpful for future employers to understand your work experience, responsibilities and general character. Asking for a reference can also demonstrate your maturity in the face of adversity, through your willingness to receive feedback and move on.

A reference from a job you have been fired from can also be used positively to indicate positive contributions you made to the organization. Finally, asking for a reference can provide a sense of closure and is a natural way to leave employment on good terms.

Who to ask for a reference

When asking for a reference after being fired, consider asking a wide selection of people, detailed below:

  • Clients or customers: Clients can provide great feedback based on the work that you did for them.
  • External contacts: Your network might be able to provide a personal reference letter regarding your expertise or character. These could include tutors (for academic references), mentors and industry peers.
  • Former managers or supervisors: Ex-leaders might provide valuable feedback about your performance, skills and attributes.
  • Human resources: HR employees provide a factual employment reference regarding your role and responsibilities.

Referees should not have been involved with your termination, so do keep this in mind.

When to ask for a reference

It’s best not to ask your old employer for a reference until you have left, so both parties can process the impacts of the termination.

You should then aim to collect a few reference letters prior to applying for new roles, in case recruiters ask for them. Of course, if employers ask for particular reference details, you should reach out to these people as soon as you are asked.

When requesting a reference, ensure you give sufficient notice to your referee, as letters take time to write.

What can referees say?

Be aware of the legal information that can be included in a reference. Referees can only divulge certain details:

  • Absence overview: Referees can provide basic details about absence, such as the number of sick days.
  • Employment details: Referees most commonly provide dates of employment, your job title and salary information.
  • Nothing at all: Sometimes, for regulatory reasons, referees cannot say anything at all.
  • Skills and performance: Referees can provide an overview of your competencies. This information has to be factual, not opinion-based.
  • Would they re-employ you: If asked, referees are allowed to say if they would re-employ or recommend you to others.

What can’t they say?

Understand your rights when it comes to being fired and references, as referees are obligated to not disclose certain formation. Here’s what cannot be said in a reference:

  • Discriminatory information: Information about protected characteristics like veteran status, race, age or sexuality cannot be shared in a reference.
  • Financial information: This cannot be shared due to the risk of bias and data protection.
  • Medical history: This is highly confidential and can be linked to disability discrimination.
  • Unspent convictions: These are only shared if your employer requests a criminal background check.
  • Untrue or misleading statements: References must be factual; any information given about why you were fired must be limited and declared correctly.

Tips for requesting a reference after getting fired

Writing to request a reference after you have been fired requires a careful, planned approach. Here are 10 tips to help you achieve the outcome you want:

1. Approach someone else if a referee declines

Because getting a reference after being fired is by no means a certainty, it pays to have a Plan B for who to ask. Ideally, this person will be able to give a similar insight into your competencies as the person you initially asked.

Remember that being declined when asking for a reference might happen, so if it happens, take the news in your stride and move on.

2. Be honest about the circumstances

If you’re contacting someone about references after you have been fired, you should be honest with them about the reasons why.

You don’t need to share with them all the details, but explain to them why you are reaching out to them and why their reference will be greatly appreciated. In general, potential referees will appreciate this humility, and it will give them a positive impression.

3. Be professional in your request

Maintain professionalism throughout your interactions to get a reference. Be polite, sincere, humble and understanding.

Asking for a reference after you have been fired can be a frustrating process and fraught with rejection. Remember that, for legal reasons, many people cannot give a reference even if they want to. Try not to take this rejection personally, and if it happens, thank the person for their time and move on.

4. Choose the right time to ask

Avoid asking for a reference the moment you are terminated. Allow the dust to settle and for emotions to calm down. This might allow you the space to carefully formulate your request and give the referee time to consider it.

Conversely, avoid waiting too long to ask for references, as people might forget the specifics about all the great things you have done.

5. Express gratitude

Showing gratitude goes a long way when requesting a reference after you have been fired. Remember that referees choose to give a reference, and in some cases, this can be a big ask.

They might bend the rules a little to give you exactly the kind of reference you are looking for, so show appreciation for this. Close off the letter with a polite “thank you in advance” to affirm your gratitude.

6. Highlight your achievements

When speaking to potential referees, reiterate a few of your key achievements in your role, such as targets you reached, projects you led or recognition you received.

This information can serve as a nudge to the referee to not just recall any performance shortcomings or the manner of your exit; instead, it focuses them on sharing the great things that you did.

7. Offer a discussion about the reference

In some cases, it might be helpful if you spoke to the referee to provide an opportunity to clarify what you are asking for. Offer to meet up or pass on your phone number so you can connect with the referee person-to-person.

This also has the added benefits of sustaining your professional network. Ensure you come to any discussion prepared with what you are asking for, or with other information the referee might find helpful.

8. Pick the right person to ask

Pick your referees carefully. Consider what kinds of reference they can give you, what areas of your work they can appraise and, critically, select a few that can provide new employers a narrative about you, such as a mix of personal references, employment references, and academic references.

As mentioned before, have a few Plan Bs in mind too.

9. Understand their decision

Writing a reference letter for someone who has been fired is a big ask and, in some cases, the referee won’t be able to complete one even if they want to.

When you write the letter, mention your awareness that you are asking a lot, and that any support would be greatly appreciated. Show that you understand why the answer might be “No”, but also offer some guidance in terms of what kind of reference is required, in case this helps.

10. Understand the law

References are strictly controlled by employment law. Sometimes, employers might not be able to write a recommendation letter, only being able to confirm basic facts like the role you were employed in and dates of employment.

This means the details of your termination won’t be shared, but also referees might be limited in terms of the good things they can share. Understand these restrictions so you know what to expect.

Reference request email sample

Below is a sample reference request email that you can customize to use if you have been fired:

Subject: Request for Employment Reference

Dear Jordan Court,

I hope you are well.

I am writing this email to request a professional reference letter from you to support me for future employment opportunities.

I understand that the circumstances of my departure may raise questions, but I am immensely grateful for the opportunities, experience and skills I gained during my time with Alphacorp.

Please let me know if you can provide a reference for me. I am confident that you can speak about my project work, sales capabilities and resilience, and that a recommendation from you will go a long way.

Thank you for considering this request, and please do reach out if you would like to discuss this email in more detail.

Yours sincerely,

Avery Hastings

Final thoughts

Asking for a positive reference after you have been fired can be daunting.

Ensuring you ask the right people is a good place to start, as well as being aware of the information that can be shared. Time your request well, and be professional and courteous in how you request the reference, focusing on what you brought to the referee’s organization.

Take comfort in the fact that references shouldn’t be based on opinion or negative; this will mean that any references you receive will be acceptable to employers and support your future career.

Got a question or want to share your own experiences about requesting a reference letter after being fired? Let us know in the comments section below.

This article is a complete update of an earlier version originally published on August 4, 2015.