Whether you're actively seeking a new job, on the brink of the final interview stage, or simply want to be well-prepared for future opportunities, securing strong references can significantly boost your career prospects. In this step-by-step guide, we'll walk you through everything you need to know, including what a professional reference is, who to ask and how to request one, with examples.
What is a professional reference?
Most hiring managers want a reference when you apply for a job. It’s a recommendation provided by someone who can vouch for your qualifications, skills, and abilities based on their first-hand experience working with you. This could be a boss, a coworker, or even a mentor. It gives potential employers a glimpse into your achievements, character and how you'd fit into the new role.
Why is a reference from a previous employer important?
In today's digital world, hiring managers get tons of job applications. So having a solid reference can give you an edge, making you stand out among other candidates competing for the same position.
Who should I ask for a reference?
When looking for a reference, it's a good move to choose someone higher up on your work ladder. Ideally, aim for references from recent employers, particularly if they're in a sector related to the job you're pursuing. They’ll be able to provide a more accurate and relevant assessment of your current skills, making your application more compelling to potential employers.
And remember, choose someone who will speak highly of you; they're more likely to speak about you positively to potential employers, increasing your chances of bagging the job.
Common referees include:
Your manager — A current or recent manager should be your go-to first choice. Since they're right there overseeing your tasks and projects, they can dive deep into your achievements and shed light on how you tackled various challenges.
A supervisor — Though a manager might have a broader overview, supervisors are often closer to the day-to-day action and can provide valuable insights for your reference.
A more senior colleague — If you can't secure a reference from your manager or supervisor, you can turn to a senior colleague who's familiar with your work. Since they've collaborated with you, they can speak on how you work with others, tackle challenges, and contribute to projects.
A human resource representative — If your manager's not up for giving a reference, they may pass it on to HR. While they might not be familiar with your daily tasks, they have a broader view of your role within the organisation and any commendations you've received.
A teacher — If you're fresh out of school or university and don't have much work experience, reaching out to a teacher is a good option. Pick one who can vouch for your strengths and relate them to a job context. Teachers can highlight your dedication to learning and how you've applied your knowledge in practical settings.
What can an employer say in a reference?
References come in various styles, depending on the referee's preferences and their relationship with the employee. They have a few options, including:
Factual references —These are straight to the point, typically confirming your dates of employment, job title, and maybe a reason for leaving.
Detailed references — Some employers go a step further, discussing your performance, accomplishments, strengths, and areas of development.
Character references — These aren't about your job performance, but more about who you are as a person. It's about your personality, reliability, and general character.
No reference — Some companies may not provide references at all. Instead, they might just confirm that you worked there.
Many employers also opt for a combined approach in their references. They might include specific factual details about your job performance and duration of employment while also adding comments on your character and interpersonal skills. This provides a well-rounded view of both your professional achievements and your personal attributes in the workplace.
What can’t an employer say in a reference?
There are some things employers can’t talk about in their reference, including:
Misleading or false details — Everything in the reference needs to be honest. For example, if you left your job on amicable terms, it wouldn't be right for your employer to imply otherwise, like suggesting you were let go for misconduct.
Irrelevant personal information — Your employer shouldn't delve into personal details that have nothing to do with your work capabilities. Things like your relationship status, health, or religious beliefs are off-limits and not relevant to potential new jobs.
If you feel you've been given an unfair reference, you might have some legal ground to stand on, according to GOV.UK. Employers are expected to support any claims they make in a reference, such as with documented evidence like a warning letter.
When should I ask for a job reference?
Typically, employers request references towards the latter stages of the hiring process. This is usually after they've met you, and perhaps even after a second or third interview, so they can narrow down their candidates to the last choices.
Here are a few appropriate moments to request a reference:
Before you leave a job — If you're on good terms and know you'll be leaving, it's smart to ask for a reference before departing. It's fresh on everyone's mind, and they're more likely to remember your achievements.
When applying — If you're actively applying for jobs, it's good to give your references a heads-up. This way, they're prepared when potential employers contact them.
After the interview — Sometimes, you might not know if a job is a good fit until after the interview. If it feels right and the employer asks for references, that's a good time to reach out to your list.
On a need basis — You don't always have to wait for a specific moment. If you're in a professional setting and someone praises your work, it might be a good opportunity to ask if they'd be willing to vouch for you in the future.
Remember to always give people enough time to craft a well-thought-out reference that isn't rushed. This will also show you value their time, and they might be even more inclined to give you a glowing reference!
How to write a reference request email
Seeking a reference, especially from someone you currently work with, can feel like a daunting task. While a phone call or an in-person meeting may be a more personal approach, sending a well-composed email can also effectively get the job done
Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you draft a professional reference request email.
1. Include a subject line
Ensure your subject line is clear and straightforward to instantly convey the email's purpose, making it easier for the recipient to prioritise and respond quickly. It could be something like: 'Reference Request - [Your Full Name]' or 'Request for Job Reference.'
Start with a polite greeting. If you have a friendly relationship with the person, their first name will do. Otherwise, use their last name with a suitable title. For example, 'Dear Mr Smith.'
3. Reintroduce yourself
If it's been a while since you last got in touch, it's a good idea to offer a quick reintroduction and remind them how you know each other. This little refresher helps them place who you are and sets the stage for your request.
Here's an example:
'I hope this email finds you well. It's John Smith, and I was a student in your Marketing Strategies course last year at [University Name].'
If it’s a current employer, they’ll know who you are, so you can skip this bit!
4. Express your intent
Clearly stating why you are reaching out for a reference is crucial. It lets your potential referee know how their reference will be significant to your job application and why you believe they are the right person to provide it.
It may look something like this:
'I'm currently in the process of applying for a social media manager position at [Company Name], and I believe that a reference from you, given our work together on various projects, would provide a strong testament to my skills and qualifications for this role.'
5. Provide specifics
Ensure you provide specifics about the job you're applying for, as this will help your referee understand what aspects of your work relationship or skills to highlight. This makes it as easy as possible for them to provide a tailored reference. You could also attach your CV or cover letter for your job application to provide an overview of your professional background, especially if you haven't worked with the potential referee in a while.
'The position is for a Senior Project Manager, which involves a lot of team coordination and client interaction, similar to the work we did on the XYZ project. I've attached my CV and cover letter, but please let me know if you need any additional information.
6. Express gratitude
It's important to show your thanks for their time and consideration, no matter what they decide regarding your reference request.
‘Thanks a lot for considering my request. I really appreciate your time and help.’
Close with a polite sign-off, followed by your name and contact information.
Something like this:
Reference request example for your current employer
‘Subject: Request for Job Reference - [Your Full Name]
Good morning Sarah,
As you know, I've been exploring job opportunities to further advance my career and I was wondering if you would be willing to provide a reference for me. Having worked with you for several years, I think your insight into my skills and experiences at [Current Company Name] will improve my chances of getting the job.
The positions I am applying for are managerial roles in social media marketing, similar to the work I have been doing here, focusing on social media strategy development, content creation, and analytics monitoring.
If you are willing, I'd be happy to provide any additional information you may need or discuss this further at a time that's convenient for you.
Thank you very much for considering my request.
Reference request example for a previous employer or teacher
'Reference Request - John Smith
Good morning, Professor Dobson,
I hope you're well. It's John Smith, one of your former students, who studied your English Language course at Manchester University last year.
I'm getting in touch because, after taking a gap year to travel, I'm now in the process of applying for graduate roles in copywriting and I was wondering if you could please provide me with a reference. I think your insight into my skills and experiences at university will improve my chances of getting the job.
The roles I'm applying for closely relate to the coursework and research I engaged in during your course, particularly focusing on creating blog content.
I've attached my CV, but I'd be happy to provide any additional information you may need.
Thank you very much for considering my request.
Tips for requesting a reference
1. Always ask before sharing referee contact details
Before handing out your referee's contact details to potential employers, always check with them first. Make sure they're comfortable serving as your reference by sending an email. This simple step can help them prepare and avoid any misunderstanding
2. Make the process as easy as possible
Simplify the process for your referees by providing them with all the necessary information and materials in your reference email request. You can attach your CV, cover letter and job descriptions so they have everything at their fingertips to craft a well-informed reference. This not only streamlines their task but also ensures that their reference aligns closely with the specific requirements of the job you're pursuing
3. Have a backup
While most people are happy to provide a reference, ensure you have a backup referee in mind. People's circumstances can change, and having an alternative in case your first choice is unavailable ensures you won't be caught off guard
4. Follow up
After receiving a positive response from a referee, be proactive in following up. Provide them with any additional details they may need and ensure they have the contact information for the potential employer.
'Morning [Referee's Name],
Thank you for agreeing to be a referee for me. I've just completed interviews for [Job Title], so [Company] may be contacting you soon. Please let me know if there's any additional information you need from me.
5. Always say thank you
If you successfully secure the position, send an email to thank your referees for their support throughout the application process. Showing your appreciation reinforces positive professional relationships and leaves a lasting impression.
Here's how you could thank them in an email:
'Morning [Referee's Name],
I've just been accepted for the [Job Role] at [Company Name]. Thank you very much for providing the reference and for your support.
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