Asking for a reference or a letter citing how amazing you are can put some people way outside of their comfort zone. The sheer act alone of asking someone for help can stop some people dead in their tracks. Asking for help, support or raising our hand is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness when in reality it’s not. We tend to believe it “could” be perceived as a sign that we don’t know what we are doing but in fact, reaching out to another person for support is critical at times. Regardless of perception, there will come a time where your life depends on enlisting another persons backing of your character and/or career.
What you should be focusing on is, “how to ask” and in the case of this article – specifically around needing a Professional Reference.
Over the course of my life (both personally and professionally) I have had to ask for numerous recommendations and referrals from everything to job applications to getting a mortgage and each time I used the same principles to ensure I was getting exactly what I needed and most importantly, to not waste the other persons time.
If not now, there will come a time when you will most certainly need a referral or recommendation of a current or former manager, mentor, boss or colleague and making sure you get exactly what you need is key. Whether it’s a verbal reference or written, it’s important to always keep in mind that the manner of drafting your request, is going to have a huge impact on the outcome of that particular request of a reference letter.
The following principles have proven successful for me over the years for both the purpose of written and verbal references. Here they are, feel free to use them in anyway you see fit.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Hands down the first and most important step in the process is to be prepared and think about the job you are applying for. What skills and abilities will the employer be likely to ask about? What is the companies culture and values? Prepare for the unknown as to whether the company will call or email your reference and determine who would be the best match.
- Start here: Do your research on both the position and the company. In this day and age, there is really no excuse for not knowing everything you can about a company from it’s people, culture, process and profit. Look over the job description and make sure you’re ready and able to share that with whomever you ask for a reference. Let them know so they are comfortable and prepared to speak about you as it pertains to the role.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PERSON
Start now by building a healthy and diverse pool of people you can contact. Sorry, your mother or best friend most likely won’t count when it comes to the “professional” aspect of a reference. Start now and think about who would be the best person to speak to your skills that are desired for the particular job your are applying for. Not all of your references know about all of your great skills , abilities and accomplishments. Likely, one or two have a more intimate or direct knowledge and could more convincingly speak to them. Consider their overall communication skills as well. Some people are great on the phone but struggle with email (and visa versa).
- Start here: If and when it comes time for your references to be contacted, you usually have the option to put down “how” each person would prefer to be reached. Don’t be afraid to ask your reference, in fact – you should out of respect for their time and communication preference.
BE POLITE AND ASK AWAY
Now comes the hard part or for some, the easy part. Either way, you have done your homework it’s now time to pop the big question. Breathe, it’s not to difficult and there are some very simple ways to ensure you get a yes. The key is to be concise and to the point. If you are in need of them to produce a letter of reference then be clear in your ask versus preparing them to receive a call or email from a recruiter. Either way, it doesn’t matter – you will still need to ask for their support.
- Start here: When possible, always start with the phone versus sending an email and by all means, never via text unless (and that’s a huge unless) the person in question prefers that method of communication. Emailing although easier (for some) puts you in the awkward situation of waiting for them to get back to you. You need something and you are asking for their support – take a more personal approach to the request and explain to them “why” you would love their support. Make it personal and authentic – in the end, most people will be humbled by you asking them.
MAKE IT PAINLESS
Remember that the people you are asking for support most likely have daytime jobs and lives outside of the workplace. Think about if you were busy with work, life and whatever else you committed to and then someone asked you to take on writing or be able to provide a reference – what would be your initial reaction? If you are like most people, some sort of conversation around time and how long it will take (without even knowing the ask yet) will be playing on a loop in your head. Be sensitive to the other persons daily commitments and make this as easy as possible for them.
- Start here: Some key steps you should take are: (1) provide them with the job description and highlight the specific skills in question and how you have demonstrated them working with/for the person you are reaching out to; (2) write a letter of reference they can refer to if it’s something they need to speak to or if you are asking them to write one for you; (3) provide your references with a copy of your resume; (4) make sure you are crystal clear in regards to the timing of both your request if needing a letter or by when they can expect to hear from an employer – this will set them up for success; (5) and last but not least, consider writing either a reference letter on your behalf and let them edit it or if needed, talking points for when they receive a call.
Probably the easiest thing to forget (especially if you get the job in question) but one of the most important. If you were lucky enough to engage and enlist the support of people in your life to speak on your behalf and you did indeed get the job, then you should show your gratitude and follow up with these people. It’s not only the professional thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I love this particular quote:
“The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for. Be Thankful.”
In the end, you may not realize how lucky (and fortunate) you are to have people in your life that will go to bat for you. Never forget that and make sure to be grateful for both their support and your ability to cultivate those types of relationships in your life.
- Start here: Pick up the phone or better yet, write this person a personal thank you note showing your appreciation for their support. If you know them well enough and what they like in terms of hobbies, passions or interests – maybe consider buying them a little gift. Lastly, make sure you express your desire to return the favor in any way you can.
If you happen to be in the situation where you are on the cusp of getting a new job or opportunity of some kind, there a few things you should remember NOT TO DO:
- Don’t use the same references for every job. Some of your references may have more knowledge about the specific skills you would like to highlight than others.
- Don’t assume someone will automatically say yes to your request
- Don’t assume your references will always be available to receive a call or email from the employer. Make sure you try to find out from the employer or person when they might call and give your contact a heads up as many people don’t answer their phones if they don’t recognize the number and many employers won’t leave a message. Same applies to an email going to SPAM, make sure they aware and know what to look for.
- Don’t assume your references will know what to say. They want to support you, so make sure you support them upfront by arming them with what to say (and not to say).
Remember: Unprepared references can unknowingly discredit your work on projects and your overall reputation.
Lastly, if you do happen to be on the receiving end of this request, fear not – here is an excellent HBR article titled “When Someone Asks You For A Reference” to support you in your decision and how to successfully provide a reference.
The floor is yours: What’s worked for you when it comes to asking and receiving a reference?
Please leave your comment below as your insight is greatly appreciated and a learning opportunity for everyone reading this article.
Not-your-typical Personal and Executive Master Certified Coach.
Joshua Miller is a creative and impactful leader. His career experience has spanned both the advertising world and the world of leadership and organizational development. To learn more about Joshua, please visit www.JoshHMiller.com
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