Best Practices in Asking for an Employment Reference

Best Practices in Asking for an Employment Reference

When it comes time to apply to a job, whether for the summer months or full-time after graduation, it’s easy to get nervous. Many of us have been programmed not to brag about our accomplishments, so it can be particularly intimidating to ask someone else to do it for us. But fear not. The truth is if you ask the right person and prepare them adequately, he or she might be honored to serve as a reference for you. In this post, we’ll delve into how and why.

How to set up a successful employment reference

Know who you’re asking

It might seem easy just to ask whoever seems the most important, but you really want to ask someone who can speak to you. Recruiters can spot a generic fill-in-the-blanks reference on paper a mile away, and it’s also pretty obvious to detect it over the phone as well. Worse yet, you could accidentally ask someone who gives you a bad reference, and it’s very difficult to bounce back from that. So before you march up to the CEO or someone else who might not know you that well, consider someone with whom you’ve made a meaningful, professional connection.

Think strategically

Different references serve different purposes. While there is some overlapping, an academic reference can speak to different aspects of your productivity than a supervisor or a peer. Who can give specific examples that point to your willingness to put in extra hours to get the job done? What about your skills as a presenter or salesperson? Or your writing proficiency? Or how you always meet a deadline? Or that time you led a team? Think about what the recruiter is looking for in someone to fill the job. If you know of someone who can cover all the bases in one phone call, great! But chances are you’ll need at least two people, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Ask and discuss

Ask first. This may sound like a no-brainer, but you’d probably be surprised how often people find themselves on the receiving end of an unexpected call for a reference. Not only is it rude and presumptive to give someone’s name and contact information without his or her permission, but it’s also unfair not to allow that person to prepare. A good reference will ask you if there’s anything in particular you’d like them to speak about. Take advantage of this opportunity!

Sit down and have a discussion with each of the people you’re asking. It’s silly to assume that other people are keeping track of each of your accomplishments—at least as well as you have—so provide them with a brief synopsis. This way you can mention anything you’d like them to speak to in particular. If this sounds like a conversation that would make you uncomfortable, you’re probably not picking the right person. We’ll also add that if you need to ask for discretion, this would be the time.

Follow up

Even if a reference phone call lasts five minutes, those are five minutes that someone has taken out of his or her day to help you. Besides, if you chose the right people, they likely spent some time preparing as well. Show your gratitude by writing a thank-you note and offering to take them out for coffee. You don’t have to go over the top, but some appreciation goes a long way. After all, you may want to ask this person for a reference again in the future. Being gracious can help maintain this relationship even after you leave the company.

If you do convince them to come out for a cup of coffee, use the opportunity to ask how it went and gauge the reaction. If they answer “Great!” and change the subject, they probably don’t want to review the little things. But if they give you some examples of things they highlighted, you can reinforce them during your next interview.

A great reference (or two) can be the key to getting your dream job, so start building them now! It’s never too early to prove yourself. Start with short-term, part-time opportunities you’ve found on the HireOwl platform. You’ll work on real projects that provide potential references with lots of chances to see how great you are.

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