Your Guide to Asking for an Employment Reference Letter

Your Guide to Asking for an Employment Reference Letter

by Belle Wong, J.D., November 2019

Whether you're embarking on a new career path, looking for your dream job, or just getting started in the world of work, letters of reference are an important part of everyone's job search tool kit. While your resume and your cover letter will go far in helping you land the position you want, the right employment reference letter may well be the factor that will tip things in your favor.

Your Guide to Asking for an Employment Reference Letter

If you've never asked for a formal reference letter before, or it's been a while since you last asked for one, you may understandably feel a little nervous about the whole process. Here, then, is an informal guide to asking for letters of reference that will help you land your dream position.

The Timing of Your Request

How you handle the timing of your request for a reference letter is important. For example, if the person from whom you're seeking a reference hasn't worked with you for a while, the recommendation they write on your behalf may not be as full and glowing as it could be, simply because of the time that has elapsed between working with you and the writing of the letter.

Because of this, one of the best times to request a reference letter from a coworker or a manager is when you're leaving an employment situation. Your work skills will be fresh in their minds, making it that much easier for them to write their recommendation on your behalf.

Sometimes, however, a job posting will ask for a current letter of recommendation; some postings may even ask that the person giving you the reference send their recommendation letter directly to the recruiter. If that's the case, you'll need to make a fresh request for a reference letter. Even in this situation, though, it's helpful if you've already received a more generic "to whom it may concern" letter from your reference, because you can then give them a copy of their previous letter, and invite them to revise it as they see fit.

Whom to Ask

The person you select to provide a reference letter is just as important as the timing of your request. While the CEO of your former employer might make for a stellar reference on paper, if you never actually worked much with your CEO, the chances are good that they will decline your request. And, even if they do say yes, they won't know you well enough to provide the kind of detail about your work skills and experience that would help you stand out from all the other job applicants.

So it's important to ask people who have worked with you, and who you feel will give you a positive recommendation. One method that makes the task of selecting potential references easier is to make a list of five to six people who you feel would be a good reference, and then go through the list to pinpoint the ones who can give you the most positive recommendations, based on their experiences working with you.

If You're New to the Work World

If you've just graduated and are embarking on a full-time job search for the first time, you may understandably feel a bit daunted by the task of asking for a reference letter. After all, your work experience may consist only of part-time work as a student, or perhaps volunteer work, with that work taking place in an area outside your field of study.

In such cases, potential employers—knowing that the position they're offering is an entry-level position—will understand that applicants will likely not have letters of recommendation from people who have experience in the employers' industry. With this in mind, consider asking for reference letters from the following people:

  • Teachers and professors in whose classes you've done well, and who can speak to your skills and how well you apply those skills
  • Athletic coaches who can talk about your positive attitude, teamwork skills, and self-motivation
  • Former employers or supervisors who can base their recommendation on your work ethic, and your ability to adapt your skills to your work environment
  • Nonprofit coordinators who can detail what you did in your volunteer position and the impact you had on the people you helped

The "Informal Ask"

You've made your list, and you know whom you want to ask. Before you send your potential reference an email or letter outlining what you'd like to see from them, it's always a good idea to ask them—informally first—if they'd be open to providing you with a letter of reference. This shows you have respect for their time, and it also means they won't receive a long, detailed email from you out of the blue, which is an important consideration, particularly if it's been a while since you last worked with them.

Your informal request can be done in a context that best fits your relationship with the person in question; for example, you might check in with them informally through a phone call, in person, or via a quick email. And remember, you're making a request, not a demand, so be clear that it's fine if they don't want to or are unable to provide you with a reference letter at this time.

Giving Your References Everything They'll Need

Once your references have indicated they'll write a letter of reference for you, you should make their job as easy as possible by giving them all the information they'll need. In most cases, it's easiest to send an email or reference request letter that includes the following:

  • Information about the position you're applying for, if you're not seeking a generic "to whom it may concern" recommendation letter
  • Why you feel they're the ideal person to provide you with a reference
  • The skills you feel you'll bring to your new job
  • A copy of your resume
  • A draft or outline of the letter of reference itself (clearly stating that they should adapt the information as they see fit)
  • If the letter is to be sent directly to a prospective employer, the contact information and submission format
  • When you will need the completed letter, or when the letter needs to be sent to your prospective employer

Your email should end with a heartfelt note of gratitude, and you also should give them a graceful "out" in the event they feel they can't provide you with the reference letter after all.

Whether it's the more generic "to whom it may concern" letter of recommendation, or a reference letter to be sent directly to a prospective employer as a complement to your job application, don't be daunted by the task of asking for employment reference letters.

The people you've worked with in the past, or who have coached or taught you, understand how invaluable such letters are, and you'll likely find that most will do their best to help you in your job search process.