Want a Professional Reference? How to Ask and What to Expect

By Nicole Fallon, Business News Daily Assistant Editor 

“References available upon request” may be a passé line to include on your job application, but there’s no question that professional references are still an important part of the hiring process. Hiring managers may like what they see about a candidate on paper, but they need to be sure of his or her potential as an employee. To find out, they’ll often call up the person’s references — typically former employers — to ask about how he or she performs in the workplace.

Before you apply to a job, it’s important to have your references lined up and ready to go in case an employer asks for them.

But whom should you ask, and how should you go about asking? Career and hiring experts shared their advice for getting a great professional recommendation.

Who makes a good reference?

DO: Ask a direct supervisor or professional mentor.

Assuming you haven’t burned any bridges, the best people to list as references are your immediate supervisors from previous jobs, said Bill Peppler, managing partner at staffing firm Kavaliro. It may not be possible in all cases, but if you have a particularly understanding boss at your current job, you may be able to ask for a reference as you search for your next opportunity.

“[Direct supervisors] know you the best and can vouch for you when it comes to your strengths and work ethic,” Peppler told Business News Daily. “Other people to strongly consider are professional mentors. If there [are people] in your company who have trained you or taken you under their wing, consider them since they have a solid understanding of your personality and receptiveness to training and feedback.”

Nick Swaggert, director of the Veteran Program at business consulting and staffing company Genesis 10 and a military veteran, said that, like in the military, rank matters when it comes to the person you’re asking for a reference. A reference from your last company’s C-suite might look impressive, but if that person has limited experience working with you, he or she might not have anything valuable to tell a potential employer. Therefore, it’s important to prepare him or her for the conversation. [3 Subtle Things Successful Job Seekers Do Right]

“When asking someone of a higher rank for a reference, ensure you are giving him or her solid talking points for the employer,” Swaggert said. “You might even [want to] send that person your old evaluations.”

Shawnice Meador, director of career management and leadership development for The University of North Carolina’s MBA@UNC program, said it’s important to consider the length of time and how long ago you worked with the person. Choosing someone you worked with many years ago, rather than your most recent previous employer, might indicate that you’re trying to hide something. At the very least, an older reference may not be as relevant to your current stage of your career.

“We all grow and mature professionally over time, so referencing someone who worked with you 15 years ago may only be familiar with your previous workstyle,” Meador said. “The more recent [your source is], the more relevant it will be for the person making the phone call.

DON’T: Ask a peer or someone who didn’t directly work with you.

It’s tempting to ask a workplace peer to serve as a reference. There’s less pressure because it feels like a favor, and you know he or she will give you a glowing recommendation. However, just because you feel more comfortable asking a friendly co-worker instead of your boss doesn’t mean you should. Peppler warned that listing someone in a peer role — or worse, a friend or family member who has never worked with you in a professional capacity — dilutes your credibility as a candidate.

Pat Dean, director of recruiting at factory maintenance and IT services company Advanced Technology Services, also noted that if you’re working with a staffing agency, you shouldn’t list your contacts there as a reference, either.

“They won’t be able to speak to [your] work,” Dean said. “Only the employee’s direct manager can do that.”

How should you ask for a recommendation?

DO: Inform the person beforehand and give him or her plenty of notice.

In some cases, when you leave a job or internship, your supervisor will happily offer to provide a reference for you in the future. However, it’s still polite to give that person a heads-up that a potential employer may be contacting him or her about your application. You can do this simply by emailing the person, letting him or her know you’re looking for a job, and asking for permission to provide his or her contact information to your potential employers, Meador said.

“Provide the person who is giving the reference or letter of recommendation plenty of notice so he or she has time to work it into their schedule,” Dean added.

Meador also advised expressing appreciation for the person you’re asking when you request a reference.

“People love hearing nice things about themselves,” Meador said. “Think about why you are asking [this person] in particular to write a testimonial. Mention something that you admire and appreciate about his or her leadership style, mentoring skills, or support of your career.  A little flattery can go a long way when you are asking a person to take time out to help you.”

DON’T: List someone’s contact information on your job application without telling him or her.

There are a number of problems with sending out a person’s contact information without their permission, especially if you include it on a publicly uploaded résumé. Not only are you opening that person up to unsolicited communications, but he or she will be blindsided when an employer calls for a reference, and will likely be unprepared to talk about you and your qualifications.

“If you post your résumé on job boards, you’ve broadcasted your reference’s contact information to way more people than you might think,” Peppler said. “Always ask before you provide contact information and consider the consequences when disclosing personal emails and phone numbers.”

Dean noted that some companies may also have a policy against providing references for current or former employees, so this is another reason to confirm a recommendation request beforehand.

What can you expect from your reference?

DO: Explain the potential job so your source can tailor the recommendation

When you’re interviewing for a job, you’ve probably done extensive research on the position so you can discuss your most relevant experience and show that you’re a good fit. Your source should know what your potential job entails so he or she can give you the best, most helpful reference possible, Dean said.

This is especially true if you are switching industries, where the lingo and common knowledge might be different from your previous career. Swaggert cited his own experience as a job seeker transitioning out of the Marine Corps, and noted that veterans need to go the extra mile in preparing a current service member for giving a reference.

“I once put my old military boss as a reference,” Swaggert said. “When the employer contacted him, he told them I was ‘a PT stud’ … who ‘knows how to impose his will on the enemy.’ It’s easy to see how that might turn off a perspective employer.”

Meador added that you should specific about the particular role, skill or accomplishment you want your source to highlight.

“Include example ideal job descriptions when possible, so the recommender can highlight things about you that ‘match’ those types of jobs,” she said.

DON’T: Forget to tell the person how you’ll be using their reference.

There are a few different ways a person can give you a reference, and you’ll need to be clear about what you need so your source knows what to expect. Will the employer be calling directly? Does the company require a personal recommendation letter? Or do you just want something to post on your LinkedIn profile?

“Be up front and authentic about what you’re asking for,” Peppler said. “Tell your reference … what you’re looking for. If you’re just posting it on your LinkedIn or sending along with several résumés, it might be a little different than if it’s for a specific job opportunity.”

Regardless of whom you ask and what type of recommendation you ask for, remember that your references are doing you a favor, and you should act accordingly. If they’re not comfortable providing a reference, respect that decision and move on to another source. If they agree, be gracious and formally thank them for their time and effort.

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