How to ask for a reference for a new job (with a sample email)

The world is a tough place. Just ask someone who is looking for a job. You craft a stunning resume and cover letter, fill out applications, and impress potential employers with your skills and experience. In between periods of anxiously waiting for some interest and responding to inquiries and interview requests, there’s something else stressing you out: how to ask for a reference from a professional contact that you haven’t talked to in months.

Asking someone to be a reference is harder than it sounds. While you might be tempted to find a family friend who will only point out your glowing accolades, employers are usually looking for business references — former bosses, colleagues, and people who know about your past work experience. If you are in the media industry, this your potential employer will most likely want to speak to someone from within the industry. There are also decisions to make about approaching current bosses and coworkers, who might spill the beans about your possible career move.

I hear your pain. Asking someone to be a reference is hard because you want to make sure the friend or colleague makes thoughtful, accurate, and positive comments. You don‘t want to prep them too much to the point of it sounding rehearsed. Your references should be people who naturally know you and like you, and to derive whether or not someone will make a good reference might require asking some poignant questions. And, there are some people you probably shouldn’t ask.

Here are a few steps to find the right references, ask them if they are willing to oblige, and then make sure it all goes according to plan.

Tip #1 for how to ask for a reference: Start by making a list

It’s too easy to pick people out of a hat. We’re all quick studies in this area — we know people who would be an ideal reference. It’s too easy to add names to an application or a resume without thinking it through. Bob Smith might have been a great boss at one time, but maybe you have lost contact with him. Your coworker Sue Johnson always seemed to like you, but it might be a good idea to do a little more digging. Think seriously about how well someone knows you and your experience, and if you have worked enough with that person. Don’t pick close friends. Find people who know you from work and will vouch for your career skills. Once you have a list of six to eight names, it’s time to start asking questions.

Tip #2 for how to ask for a reference: Ask about their opinion

I like to keep things simple in my work and not create any confusion. If you have whittled down your list and know you have some great choices, go ahead and let the person know you’d like to include their name and contact info with your application. List out the job title and why you’re interested, but keep it short. At this stage, the most important step in the process is to ask a potential reference if they like the idea and if they are familiar with your recent experience. You can ask if they think you did a good job in your role and would recommend you. It’s perfectly fair to qualify your references in this way, but it’s also surprisingly easy to skip this step. Your contacts might be up front about it — they might decline. If they tell you everything is fine and they’d love to talk about your incredible background and skills, then proceed.

Tip #3 for how to ask for a reference: Make it official

Notice that you didn’t really tell anyone they will be a reference. You are scoping out some options. Once you have a good take on the person’s views and what they might say, go ahead and let that person know he or she will be a reference. List out the contact details on your resume or during the application. (By the way, some employers check references early in the process, while others might decide to do that at the end. Sometimes, when employers check references, it is a good sign you might be the final candidate and will get the job, although that’s not always the case.)

Tip #4 for how to ask for a reference: Check in with your references

There seems to be an unspoken rule that you shouldn’t ask references if an employer has checked in about your work. That’s an interesting viewpoint since the references are often your friends, colleagues, coworkers, or former bosses. They are your contacts, and you should feel free to ask them anything you want. If it’s been a while since you listed their name, it’s fine to check in and ask about the employer. If they’ve completed a phone call, online form, or email for more info, then it’s also fine to ask them about how it all went. Often, you will know eventually if a reference really praised you and mentioned your wonderful skills because employers sometimes move into high gear — they reach out to more references and then to you.

In the end, you are in charge of the process, at least in terms of the references you provide. And you can find out quite a bit of information about the process by asking references. It doesn’t circumvent the process. It might speed it up and make you a more likely candidate for the job. 

Sample email to show you exactly how to ask for a reference

Hi Mr. Smith,

How are you? I’m so sorry I have not been in touch in so long. My move from Raleigh was pretty hectic. There’s been so many times you have been on my mind and I meant to send you a note. Regardless, how are things at Siemens Healthineers

I remember last time we talked you mentioned you had just hired a new senior software developer. How are things going with that? 

Right now my main reason for reaching out is because I have a request- sorry to be that person. I’m currently interviewing for an account director position at Quicken Loans and I’m curious if it would be okay if I listed you as a reference? If not, I completely understand. If it is alright with you, I’ll tell you a bit about the role and will fill you in on what I have been up to professionally as of late.

I hope you are doing well!

Thanks so much,

(Your First and Last name)