How to Ask for Professional References

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How to Ask for Professional References

Career Development
Career Coach Jena Mahne
September 26, 2019

Employers have tough decisions to make when hiring for their open positions. There might be several candidates who are well-qualified on paper, and it can be difficult to determine who is the best fit for the job.

One sure-fire way to differentiate yourself is to have strong references – people who can speak to your work ethic, professional skills, and the qualities that make you a good employee. In some cases, your professional references can make or break your chances of being hired, or help you stand out from other candidates who interviewed similarly.

According to a study by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), more than eight out of 10 human resource professionals regularly check a candidate's references. Speaking to a former supervisor or employer helps hiring managers gain better insight into your skills, experience, and your qualifications for the role.

Not sure how to approach a potential reference or what to ask for? We have all the tips you need to secure solid references and land the job:

Tips for Asking for References:

1. Who to ask:

Your references should be people who have worked with you directly and recently (within the last 7 years). It’s also important that you have a good professional relationship with the references you list. You want that person to be able to speak to your strengths in a confident way and advocate for you, if needed. For recent graduates, examples of who to ask include (in order of importance): current or past supervisors or managers, professors, coaches, and co-workers.

Occasionally, an employer might ask for a personal reference, such as a family member or friend. In this case, the employer is looking for someone who can speak more about your character and personality than your professional qualifications. Employers will usually specify if they are looking for a personal reference; otherwise, provide professional references. It’s a good idea to have 3-5 solid professional references ready to go in case you are asked during an interview or the application process.

2. How to ask:

The best way to ask for a reference is to be gracious and understanding of their time, as well as straight to the point. 

“I’ve sincerely enjoyed my experience working for you and have learned so much. Would you be willing to be a professional reference for me throughout my job search process?”

Once your references accept, make sure to keep them up to speed on your career situation. Let them know when you are looking and applying for jobs; they might be able to network for you and help you make connections. Let them know when you are interviewing and when they might expect to receive a phone call or email from your prospective employer. You don’t want your reference to be caught off guard when they receive the call. It puts your reference in an uncomfortable situation and reflects poorly on you and your planning.

Always thank your reference after they have spoken on your behalf and update them on whether you were offered the position. Always offer to return the favor for them as well, if they should ever need you.

Establishing good professional relationships is important and will make it easier for you to ask for references down the road. Stay in contact with your references, and don’t just reach out when you need something from them. Check in from time to time to see how they are doing, wish them a happy holiday or birthday, or share a recent article or best practice. Having a mutually beneficial relationship means you will have a reference for life!

3. What to ask for:

It’s a good idea to prepare your references beforehand. Let them know what kind of position you are applying for and what was discussed in the interview. You can even jog their memory of successful projects you worked on together, or instances when you were able to generate good results. This will help them tailor the conversation to highlight your skills and achievements most relevant to the position. For example, you could say: 

“When asked about my ability to work on a team, can you bring up how I worked with Jenny and Rick to pioneer the new app technology and took the lead on marketing initiatives that drove membership through the roof?”

Giving your references a few talking points beforehand will make it much easier for them to speak on your behalf.

Bonus Tip: Using your references to your advantage

There are other ways to leverage professional references. Written evaluations of your work or letters of recommendation can help you develop language around your skills and accomplishments on your resume or cover letter, in a networking situation, or during an interview.

For example, if on your quarterly evaluation, your supervisor indicated that you excelled in sales, you can include this accomplishment on your resume by saying something like:

“Recognized by the regional director for excellence in sales during 3rd quarter, increasing profitability by 20%.”

You can also submit letters of recommendation along with your application materials, or after an interview to showcase your proven ability to perform well in the job, especially if the market is super competitive.

When it comes to choosing good references and asking for a reference, Herzing’s Career Development Team is always here for you! You can reach us at careerdevelopment@herzing.edu or by calling (866) 508-0748 x240.

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