How to ask for great references (+templates)

May 11, 2021

Are you wondering if now is the time to start collecting references for your next job-hunt? The answer is probably yes: employers almost always ask for references.

How to ask for great references (+templates)

In fact, according to a survey by Society for Human Resource Management, between 87 and 92 percent of organizations conduct background checks on potential candidates — almost all of which include reference outreach.

A great interview and impressive resume still require references. In fact, references are especially pertinent for remote workers, who employers and fellow employees may not trust as easily. A lack of face-to-face communication and daily interpersonal interaction means job candidates who apply or work remotely will have to do additional work to remain on an even playing field with in-person candidates.

Simply put, if you and another candidate are the same in every way — except for the fact that they have a reference and you do not — they are far more likely to get the job. So: how do you go about asking for and attaining excellent references?

At MentorCruise, we’ve made this step-by-step guide to help you learn how to assess, ask and make the most of every professional reference you seek.

Asking For A Reference At A Glance

Asking for a reference can be difficult to navigate. While the following is an in-depth examination of how to choose and ask for references accurately, the most crucial aspects involve:

  • Preparing a list of multiple references in advance
  • Choosing the right people to represent you
  • Determining the best outreach method for each reference
  • Asking politely and allowing others to decline
  • Thanking references for their time and effort

How to Ask for a Great Reference

Collecting references starts far in advance of the job-hunt:

Step 1: Take time in building a relationship with the reference. While it may sound disingenuous to foster relationships with others for the sole purpose of gaining a reference, you do not need to think about building connections as a business decision — simply making an effort to remain in good standing with your professional colleagues will help you considerably when it comes time to ask for their recommendation.

At MentorCruise, we have career mentors and coaches to help you learn how to nurture your work relationships and become excellent at making friends that can be invaluable throughout your career.

Step 2: Build in additional time for potential references to respond before applying. Don’t apply for a new job immediately after asking for a reference. There is a good chance you won’t get a response in time and you’ll be left without a reference for your potential job.

Step 3: Make a list of potential great references. People who are unaware of your work history or have little interaction with you are not great references. Resist the urge to choose references based on impressive people in your sphere — after all, an executive-level manager may provide a worse recommendation than a colleague at your level. Compile a list of those who specifically worked with you, and those who know about your accomplishments, personal achievements and workstyle.

Step 4: Consider the right form of communication. When it comes to outreach, the method of communication matters. Some people are best reached through email, such as ex-managers or company leaders, who will appreciate a formal request. Others, such as personal references and local community members, can be reached more personally through a phone call, Zoom meeting or text.

If you are a remote worker, you have an advantage here: you can access contacts digitally from anywhere — take the opportunity to consider your entire network, and not just those who work or live near you.

What Should an Excellent Reference Request Look Like?

If you are thinking of reaching out to a potential reference through email, you will want to consider the following:

  • First, make sure your subject line is straightforward. You should let your potential reference know that you are asking for their recommendation within the subject line.

  • Begin the email by explaining your career history and the job you are applying for. A reference cannot recommend you accurately without knowing your recent work history — share it so that they can provide an even better portrait of your qualifications to your next potential employer.

  • Describe what makes you the right candidate for the job. Make the case for yourself. If there are any new skills or qualifications you have gained since you last spoke with this potential reference, mention them.

  • Keep things short and friendly. A long email goes unread. A reference is already taking time out of their day to recommend you, so try to make the process of recommending you as fast and convenient as possible.

  • Give references a chance to decline. Most references will say yes to your request if you are in good standing. Still, giving them a chance to decline will help them see you in a positive light, and it may keep the door open for a future recommendation if their reason for declining is due to scheduling or other commitments.

  • End the email by thanking the reference for their time and consideration. References do not have to do what they do: thanking them will ensure they are more likely to continue to recommend you in the future.

  • Remember to send a follow-up whether you get the job or not. This is courteous and will keep your network of connections strong.

An Example Reference Email Template

Subject Line: Request for Reference — [YOUR NAME]

Dear [REFERENCE NAME],

I hope this note finds you in good spirits, and that everything at [NAME OF OLD COMPANY] is going well. I enjoyed our time together and think about you and [INSERT NAME OF OTHER COWORKERS] often.

I am reaching out to inquire about whether you would feel comfortable acting as a reference for a new job I am applying for. The job involves [INSERT DETAILS OF JOB YOU ARE APPLYING FOR], and as such I thought you could speak to my qualifications for the position.

Since our time together at [NAME OF OLD COMPANY], I have been [INSERT DETAILS OF WORK HISTORY]. For these reasons, I feel I am qualified to seek this new position, and I hope you agree.

This reference would require providing a positive letter of recommendation as well as a potential phone call from the company to verify the details of your recommendation. A positive reference from you would help me greatly in my job search.

Please let me know if you have any questions or if there is anything else I can provide regarding my request. I have attached an updated resume with my work history as well for your review. You can reach me at this email address or contact me at: [INSERT ALTERNATE CONTACT METHOD].

Lastly, I understand if you cannot provide a reference due to other commitments — in any case, thank you very much for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.

Bonus Tip: Not everybody can or wants to be a reference. Do not “corner” or plead with others to be a reference — they may see this as an affront and will give you a worse review than if you did not have any references at all!

Sending Email Follow-ups for Reference Requests

Sometimes people get busy and do not respond to emails immediately. Unfortunately, in the job market, a quick reply is important when it comes to establishing great references. In these instances, it can be helpful to send a follow-up email either directly or indirectly.

  • Sending a direct follow-up email: If you are sending a direct follow-up to a reference request, you will want to email your potential reference again about seven to ten days before the reference or application deadline. This gives your contact time to write a letter of recommendation without feeling pressured to finish it in an unreasonable amount of time.

If you still do not hear back from your reference, you may want to give them a call — however, it may simply be best to consider other potential contacts at this point.

  • Keep follow-ups brief and kind: A follow-up email should always be shorter than the initial request. A single paragraph is more than acceptable.

  • Include deadline dates: Giving a deadline date for references to reply — even if it is simply a date created by you in order to stay on top of your application — will give references additional reason to reply swiftly to your request.

An example of a direct follow-up email:

Dear [REFERENCE NAME],

Hello! I hope you are doing well. I wanted to follow up on my reference request for a letter of recommendation regarding the position I am applying for at [NAME OF COMPANY].

I know that things get busy at [NAME OF OLD COMPANY], so no rush on a response — the due date for my application is [DATE], so as long as you have time before then, a letter of recommendation would be much appreciated.

Thank you again and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sending an indirect follow-up email

Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable or inappropriate to follow up directly with a potential reference. If this is the case, you can reach out to others around the reference to check on the status of your request. The Human Resources department of most companies can check in with potential writers to see if they have received your request for a recommendation. Alternatively, you can reach out to the reference directly without asking them for a response.

An example of an indirect follow-up email:

Dear [REFERENCE NAME],

Good afternoon! I am just following up to see if you had everything you needed from me regarding my request for a letter of recommendation.

I have re-attached my resume in case you need it. Please let me know if there is any other documentation that I can send your way. Thank you again and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.

What to do When Someone Accepts Your Reference Request

Congratulations! Someone has accepted your request for a reference or letter of recommendation. If you are in this position, there are several things to keep in mind that will help you make the most of your new reference.

  • Be sure to send an updated resume to any accepted reference: if you have not already sent your resume to a potential reference, now is the time. This will help them provide a stellar recommendation of your qualifications when your potential employer contacts them.

  • Ask recruiters if they have received a recommendation from your reference: if they have not, notify your reference that recruiters may need them to send or resend their recommendation.

  • Thank your references: Being a reference for someone else requires time, effort and dedication. Be sure to thank those you ask to be a reference — both those who accept and those who do not. This will go a long way toward fostering continued bonds between you and those in your professional network.

  • Use digital tools and resources to thank references: there are great online tools and resources, such as e-cards, that you can use to thank your contacts for their help. Acts of kindness like these feel great, and they show references that you care about their glowing recommendation of you.

Reference Mistakes to Avoid

Unfortunately, when it comes to asking contacts to act as a reference, mistakes can happen. Try to avoid these potential pitfalls when you are looking for a recommendation:

  • Do not wait to ask: Before you even hit the job market, start compiling your list of potential references. Having references on standby is better than a last-minute reference who is not prepared to give a review of your skills. 

  • Do not fall into the mandatory reference trap: No references are better than bad references. For instance, if you are a remote worker who has been freelancing for an extended period of time or you are experiencing another work situation that makes references scarce or irrelevant, you are better off being your own best advocate. 

  • Do not ask others to lie for you or stretch the truth: Asking others for a perfect reference is disingenuous and will tarnish both your relationship with your reference as well as your own reputation. At best it is embarrassing if you cannot perform the tasks a company was told you could accomplish. At worst, you may be fired if you are found out for falsely inflating your skills and qualifications.

References: The Resource You Do Not Want to be Without

Applying for a job without a reference is akin to skipping the interview or failing to attach your resume in your application — you do not want to risk it! This is especially true considering other potential candidates _will _have references, and you will look lacking in comparison.

Learning how to ask the right references to provide glowing letters of recommendation will greatly increase your chances of gainful employment, future opportunities and long-term success.

Now: fire up that email and start making those job-netting requests.

What can mentorship do for you?

Our 'state of mentorship' report sums up the benefits, reports and effects that mentorship has on the modern working environment.

App screenshot