How to Ask for a Reference (Tips and Email Template)

Close-up of a businessman giving a document to another businessman

Are you really the Steve Jobs of IT? Have you actually got what it takes to handle social media like Mark Zuckerberg?

The skills you brag about on your CV and which you boast in your interview will most often require solid proof. (Sometimes, showing off your portfolio just isn’t enough for a potential employer.)

And references are generally one of the holy grails of job applications – they build your credibility, endorse your professional skills and help you stand out among other job applicants.

The problem, though, is that asking someone for a reference can be awkward. Who wants to reach out to an ex-boss?! An even more daunting task might be asking your soon-to-be previous employer for some kind words… you’ve just quit, and you’re already asking for a favour – really?!

If you’re tongue-tied, jittery or clueless about how to ask for a reference, look no further than these tips below!

1. Choose the right job referee

If you’ve changed jobs in the past, you may have a selection of previous employers to act as your job referee, but it’s all about choosing the right one.

Typically, you need someone who you can trust to speak well about your skills, qualifications and character, so start thinking about previous supervisors or managers who can give positive feedback about your performance.

Ideally, you should choose someone from a job that is the most relevant to the one you’re applying for now.

A common mistake that jobseekers make, however, is using extremely outdated references. Your future boss doesn’t care what your manager from 1994 thought of you – the more recent the job, the stronger your reference letter will be!

In fact, it’s always a great idea to ask your soon-to-be ex-boss to serve as a reference – they might have freaked out about you quitting, but they should come around sooner or later. If you didn’t have a particularly good relationship with your boss, though, consider asking someone else from the organisation, like a colleague or someone from human resources.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, it’s time to take a deep breath, pick up the phone, put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and start reaching out to your previous employer.

2. Let them know in advance

Preparing a reference is no walk in the park. To truly nail down that perfect, beaming reference letter, your potential referee will have to think long and hard about what professional knowledge and skills you have demonstrated in the past. They’ll aim to use influential words, and they’ll want to make sure it suits the industry you’re targeting.

A rushed letter or phone call is never enough for your future employer; you want your reference to be as powerful and detailed as possible. For this reason, make sure to give your job referee some time to consider the request and prepare their assessment.

If your preferred referee is your soon-to-be ex-boss, make sure to leave it a few days after you hand in your notice before making the request. Give them some time to digest the news and get over the panic of replacing you, and time the best moment to approach them – ideally, when they’re most calm.

3. Approach them with kindness

You’ve chosen the referee and now is the time to find out how to ask for a reference.

You’re asking for quite the favour here, so you want to grovel and give all the sweet talk you’ve got (keep it classy, of course). It’s also important that you keep it personal.

A phone call or face-to-face request is a lot more personal than sending out an email. You should only resort to emailing if you think your nerves will get the better of you.

If you’re reaching out to an ex-boss, remind them who you are, update them on your role at the company and let them know what kind of job it is you’re applying to.

4. Show some respect

Let your former employer know that you value and respect their opinion. Even if you left the company on bad terms, wheedle your way in by telling them that you appreciate the valuable work experience you gained at their company.

If you had a decent relationship with your boss, they shouldn't have a problem vouching for your skills and performance. Don’t jump the gun; though; always ask the employer if they’re comfortable providing you with a reference.

Rather than just asking, ‘Can you write a reference letter for me?’, make your request more elaborative. For example:

‘I’m applying for a role as [mention role], and I know that a recommendation can increase my chances at getting the job. Since you were my manager for [said] years, I’d highly appreciate it if you could serve as my reference’.

Continuing with ‘Would you be comfortable in doing so?’ and ‘Will you have time to prepare a letter recommending my skills?’ is a graceful and respectful way to sweeten up your ex-boss.


5. Prepare for rejection

During your job search, it’s likely that you’ll encounter a few rejections – even when asking for reference letters! Your request can be as pleasant and polite as the Queen of England’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a ‘yes’ out of your former boss.

If they are hesitant in being your reference, accept their rejection politely and thank them for their time. It may be a kick in the teeth for you, but never show your disappointment and never, ever pressure them to give in. Simply move on to your next potential referee.

6. Provide enough information

So, your job referee agreed to put in a good word for you? Awesome! To make the process for them a lot quicker and easier, help them out by handing over as much information as you can:

  • Summarise what job you’re applying for and your future duties.
  • Let them know what skills, characteristics and work experience you’d like them to highlight.
  • Send them your CV to refresh their memory about your know-how and proficiency.

Keep it sweet, but short. You don’t want to ramble on or send them a ridiculously lengthy, stress-inducing email. You simply want to help the referee know how to answer certain questions.

To wrap up what turned out to be a pretty easy task, ask for your referee’s contact details and their most preferred method to be contacted.

7. Use an email template

If you’re choosing to request a reference by email, consider using the following template to craft your own letter:

Reference Letter After Quiting Job

8. Follow up

Once you’ve given your references to your prospective employer, give your job referee a heads up and let them know which company might be calling.

Don't make the mistake of forgetting to follow up!

Whether you land the job or not, it’s always nice to send them an email to thank them for agreeing to endorse you. This not only shows your respect and appreciation, but it also helps maintain a good relationship with them in the long run.

Asking for a reference is all part of the difficult task of job hunting. It can be a touchy subject, and there’s a 50/50 chance of succeeding.

So long as you master your words and deliver a convincing request, though, you’ll be well on your way to presenting a successful reference to your future employer.

What’s your most preferred way of requesting a reference? Have you had a difficult time doing so in the past? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 13 August 2015.

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