How To Ask for a Professional Reference

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Jacob Meade

Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW, ACRW)

Jacob Meade is a resume writer and editor with nearly a decade of experience. His writing method centers on understanding and then expressing each person’s unique work history and strengths toward their career goal. Jacob has enjoyed working with jobseekers of all ages and career levels, finding that a clear and focused resume can help people from any walk of life. He is an Academy Certified Resume Writer (ACRW) with the Resume Writing Academy, and a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) with the Professional Association of Resume Writers & Career Coaches.

Professional references play a significant role in landing an employment opportunity. However, if you have people in mind, you may not know the most appropriate way to ask them. For example, you probably need more than just:

“I’m currently looking for a new job – can I use you as a reference?”

If your request is vague or ambiguous, your contact may feel uncertain about what you are asking for and may not respond. Consequently, they may also be unable to serve as a reliable source for references. You can avoid this pitfall by writing your request in a clear, concise, and easy-to-understand format.

The Seven Best Ways to Ask for a Reference

1. Directly

The one thing the “can I use you” line above has going for it is directness – it gets right to the point. Don’t lose sight of that as you flesh out your message using the tips below. See how each example still centers on a straightforward, yes-or-no question ending with a question mark. You’ll want the same in your message. Also, assuming you send your request by email, opt for a straight-shooter subject line like “Professional reference?” This direct tone makes it easier for your recipient to grasp why you’re reaching out to them quickly.

2. Politely

In any reference request you send, “please” and “thank you” are a must. Maintain a polite, courteous tone to show you respect and appreciate the person’s time and attention.

Dear [Recipient Name],

I hope this message finds you well. I’m starting a new job search, and I have a favor to ask. May I include you on my list of professional references?

I’d appreciate it. Please let me know. Thank you, and I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

3. Personably

The best way to open your request is by citing any common background you share with the person. It shows the recipient you’re reaching out to them specifically, not just including them on a long list of inquiries. It’s also a possible conversation starter, inviting your contact to respond to you on a light personal note before getting down to business.

Dear [Recipient Name], 

I hope this message finds you well. It was great seeing you and catching up at [the last time you met in person]!

I’m starting a new job search, and I have a favor to ask. May I include you on my list of professional references? 

I’d appreciate it. Please let me know. Thank you, and I look forward to your response. 

Sincerely, 

[Your Name]

4. Professionally

Although a personable tone is great, don’t let that steer you into territory unfit for a professional setting. Even if the colleague you’re asking is also a good friend, it’s usually better to leave inside jokes (gifs, memes, etc.) out of this message. Go with a crisp, professional tone, and you’ll make it easier for a possible reference to see your value and take their recommendation seriously. (For the same reason, always double-check your message for proper spelling and grammar.)

5. Precisely

The more precisely your contact understands your job search, the more easily they’ll envision supporting it. Include with your message some background on your current goals. Consider giving details on your target job title, duties, level, industry, or company size.

Also, consider spelling out the skills you’d like to showcase to employers. This stops short of advising the person what to say on your behalf but helps them quickly know the parameters of your search and whether it’s something they can speak to. Spelling out your focus areas can be particularly helpful to colleagues you’ve worked with on various projects, who otherwise might be unclear about what your target employers will ask them.

Dear [Recipient Name],

I hope this message finds you well. It was great seeing you and catching up at [the last time you met in person]!

I’m starting a new job search, and I have a favor to ask. May I include you on my list of professional references? I’d appreciate it.

The jobs I’m targeting are [background on goals]. 

To that end, I’m trying to emphasize my skills in [focus areas]. 

Please let me know if you’d be comfortable speaking about my ability in these areas. Thank you, and I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

6. Briefly

Give some background on your job search, but don’t get carried away. If you find yourself typing out a lengthy description of your various career considerations, stop. You’ll make it easier for a possible reference to understand and reply to your request if you give just a few quick, precise details on the jobs you’re eyeing and the skills you’d like to apply. Don’t send the person your resume until after they’ve agreed to be a reference. Your resume can give references helpful broader context, but it amounts to TMI at this early stage.

7. Casually

Lastly, pose your question casually enough that the contact doesn’t feel awkward declining.

On the one hand, you should only ask for a reference from people you’re reasonably sure will say yes, i.e., past colleagues, mentors, and managers who’ve seen you excel at your job. But on the other hand, people are busy. A contact may want to help but not have the time to correspond with multiple employers, asking them for information about you. Acknowledge that outright in your message, and the person will be more comfortable responding even if their answer is no. Leave the communication open in case they can agree to be a reference for you later.

Dear [Recipient Name], 

I hope this message finds you well. It was great seeing you and catching up at [the last time you met in person]! 

I’m starting a new job search, and I have a favor to ask. May I include you on my list of professional references? I’d appreciate it. 

The jobs I’m targeting are [background on goals]. 

To that end, I’m trying to emphasize my skills in [focus areas]. 

Please let me know if you’d be comfortable speaking about my ability in these areas (and I’d certainly understand if you’re too busy at this time). Thank you, and I look forward to your response. 

Sincerely, 

[Your Name]

The Bottom Line: Make it Easy

The finished template above is just one way to organize your request message. Regardless of your approach, use these seven tips to make it easy for contacts to grasp and reply to your inquiry quickly. With a clear, direct request style, you can maximize your responses and start building a solid list of references for your job search.

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