How to Ask for a Reference Without it Getting Awkward

By Mia Casey

Asking for a reference can be a little unnerving, particularly if you’ve left a job on a bad note or haven’t spoken to your previous bosses or colleagues for a while. Luckily for you, I’ve put together a quick summary of how you can ask for a reference (without things getting too awkward).

Who to ask

Ask someone who worked above, but directly with you. That way they can give examples of your work, and have firsthand knowledge of your skills. Overall it just makes for a more authentic reference. You want to be asking people who are most relevant to the position you’re currently applying for. This usually means someone from your most recent job; although including a reference from a past job that more closely aligns with the one you’re applying for can also be a great idea!

If you left your previous job on a low-note, or you didn’t get along with your boss, then it might be best to skip asking them for a reference. However, if that job is the most relevant to the new one you’re applying for, try to find someone else from your old workplace to ask. Think of who you got along well with or who you worked with on a regular basis, and aim to choose someone who was (at least) slightly higher in the business hierarchy than you. Better that than getting an awful half-hearted reference from a boss who didn’t appreciate your work!

Provide some context

If you’re asking someone for a reference – regardless of whether it’s a written one or verbal one over the phone – you want to give them some information. When you start looking for a job, give them a heads-up so they can be prepared if someone calls out of the blue. If you’re applying for a particular job, message or call them again and let them know to expect a call. At this stage it’s a good idea to send through a job description, or give them a quick run through of what the potential employer is looking for. That way, they can tailor their answers to best represent your skills.

How to ask

Okay, so how you contact your reference largely depends on the type of relationship you have with the person. So here’s a quick breakdown on how to ask for a reference, depending on where you stand with the person you’re asking!

When you’re still working with them

If you’re still working with your desired reference but you’re looking for a second job, then it’s best to ask that person face-to-face. Emails don’t quite capture the gratitude you want to convey. Also, if you’re already working with them, then they may misinterpret the email as you saying you’re looking for a new job entirely. Which, hello, might be a bit awkward. Keep things friendly, and simply ask if they’d be alright with you listing them as a reference.

When you’re quitting to start somewhere new

If you’ve just quit, or just about to quit one job to take on another and you want a reference from your recent boss, then, okay, it might be a little uncomfortable. But, to be honest, they’ve likely had people quit before so won’t take it too personally. Be polite, and if you can ask them in person, do so. Make sure to reiterate that you’ve enjoyed your time working with them, and that you really value their opinion and would love it if they’d agree to be a reference for you.

When they’re your friend

If you’re friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) with the person you want to ask – maybe you meet up for coffee every few years, like their Facebook posts, txt them when you see something they’d like, that kind of thing – then using your usual line of communication is probably a safe bet. Really though, it depends on the person. If you know they take their work-life separation really seriously, shooting them a Facebook message is likely to rub them the wrong way. Instead, give them a call through their work and keep things a little more formal.

When you haven’t spoken in ages

Finally, if you’re asking for a reference from someone who you haven’t seen or spoken to in years, you need to go the formal route. Find out their current work details and give them a call. Like before, be friendly and polite – ask how they’re going, how work is, etc. – and tell them briefly about why you’re calling and the new job you’re applying for. If they’re receptive, it could be a good idea to ask if you can email over a copy of the job description so they’re not stuck struggling to think of skills this new employer could be looking for. It is important to keep in mind that you’ll be wanting references who will remember you and your work ethic – getting someone who worked with you 10 years ago to attest to your skills now isn’t going to go down well.

Basically, the main take away from this is: be polite, be professional, and be discerning. You want to ask people who worked closely with you and appreciated your work. As long as you’re friendly and professional, it’s more than likely that they’ll be willing to help out.

And remember: if you follow these steps, no one is going to be angry at you for asking for a reference. It’s normal. Everyone does it. It totally doesn’t have to be awkward. Good luck!

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash.


Author: Mia Casey

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