How to Ask for a Reference

I got an email recently on a topic that always makes me cringe. This one, from an HR representative at a large organization, wrote to say, "What are we teaching job candidates these days about asking for references?" Her complaints were valid: in her experiences, she found that the contacts that job candidates provided as a reference were unprepared, didn't know the candidate, and had not been expecting a call from HR to check in on the job applicant. Don't let this be you! Here's what you can do to make sure that your references support your candidacy for the job you want, and don't detract from it. 

1. CHOOSE references who have supervised your work in a professional or academic context. Provide a mix of references if possible, from multiple jobs or classes/courses of study. You should have a good relationship with them, and they should be able to speak positively about the work you have done with and for them. Make a list of names that you can draw from. 

2. ASK your references for their permission to use them in a job application. Ask for their current title, and the best email and phone number to reach them. Are there times of day or modes of communication that they prefer? Make sure you know those so you can provide that information to your HR person if needed. 

Here's a sample reference request: 

"Hi Mary, I recently found a job that I think would be a great fit, and I have decided to apply. I've been asked to provide references that they may contact if I am successful in the interview, are you willing to serve as a reference for me? If so, I'd be happy to send you the details on the role and why I think it would be a good fit for my skills and experience. If you are willing, can you let me know what is the best email and phone number for you? Thanks very much!" 

3. GIVE your references a copy of your resume, cover letter, and the job description for the position for which you are using them as a reference. This will help them get a sense for where you're at currently in your career and what you're seeking. 

4. COACH your references on what you want them to be able to say about you. Are there specific skills or traits listed in the job description that you want them to focus on, or traits that you're hoping they can speak to that are specifically relevant to the job ? Share with your references how this position relates to your larger career goals and why you're interested in it. 

Be prepared to provide references before you begin job searching. If you can't think of 3 to 5 people who can speak positively about your work experience and professional ability and potential, then focus first on cultivating good references through project work or in your current job or school. 

Then be ready to share your information about your job search with the people who can advocate for you!