How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference: 5 Best Practices

When searching for a job, it helps to keep a list of professional references handy. Potential employers often include referencing as part of the hiring process, so it's normal for them to ask for a list of references with your job application.

Whether it's a co-worker, former boss, or personal reference, a professional reference should inform your prospective employer about their experience working with you and confidently comment on your suitability for this new position.

If you haven’t asked for an employment reference before, don't worry. I have you covered. In this article, I’ll show you how to ask someone to be a reference. This should move you one step closer to your new position.

The Medium Matters

Though the language you use to request a reference matters more than the medium, there are situations when email or snail mail requests are preferred. Let’s take a look at these two options.


This is the fastest way to ask for a reference, especially if you want to adapt one template for multiple potential references. You can create an email template relatively easily and request an employment reference in moments. Here's a sample template:

Dear XYZ,

I hope this email finds you well. I'm sending this email to see whether you are available to serve as a reference for me in my current job search.

I learned so much while working for you and feel the experience helped me evolve in my professional life. I hope that, as my former manager, you can speak to my willingness to learn and my leadership skills. If you are keen to communicate this experience to my potential employers in the form of a professional reference, it would mean a lot.

Let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to hearing from you.

All the best,

Your Name

Hint: If you want your reference request to be seen more quickly, put your name in the subject line. This adds personalization and gets the attention of your former manager

Snail Mail

If you're not in a rush, you can always mail a personalized request to a list of people you believe will serve as a good reference for your new position. This might be the right option for any personal references or anyone you don't have an email for. 

A personal reference (otherwise known as a character reference), is anyone who can vouch for your character whom you don’t work directly with. It can be a business acquaintance, client, former teacher, or member of a volunteer organization you belong to. Avoid listing family, friends or spouses.


I don't recommend you use LinkedIn to ask for potential references, as people don’t necessarily check LinkedIn messages regularly. LinkedIn is better suited to asking for endorsements of specific skills that align with your resume.

How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference: 5 Best Practices

How to ask someone to be a reference: Woman chats on phone

Many people perceive etiquette as relating to work ethic. Plus, good etiquette shows your respect for the process and the other person. That’s why the way you request a job reference could impact the response. Here are my tips for ensuring the best possible outcome.

1. Ask the Right People

It seems like a no-brainer, but a shortlist of people who can speak to your work experience is far more important than a long list of unqualified (or unreliable) references. Take stock of your potential new job’s responsibilities, and consider which of your professional references might be best-suited to speak about your abilities.

Here are some important questions to ask yourself when choosing which potential references to contact first:

  • What is your relationship to the potential reference? Did this person supervise you or work on relevant projects with you? For example, providing the contact details of the CEO who didn’t directly oversee your work may not be the best option.
  • What kind of a job are you applying for? Look for a reference who can accurately relate your past work experience to the new job description.
  • When did you last work together? Potential employers tend to appreciate your most recent work experiences. Any referencing from people you worked with more than three years ago may be considered old news.
  • Is this person a solid communicator? Even if a reference can speak to your former work experience, be sure they can articulate your former work experience well. Whenever possible, select eloquent references to represent you.
  • What will this person say about your job performance? Give yourself a reality check about what this person might say about your skills and experience. If the person didn’t typically give you positive feedback when you worked together, they may not be the right choice for a professional reference.

One way to have several recommendation letters ready to review is to ask your boss for one every time you leave a job. That way, you’ll have their letter, contact information, and a prediction of how well they’d serve as a reference. However, as a professional courtesy, it’s best to notify a reference each time you list them so they won’t be caught off guard.

2. Be Diplomatic 

No one likes to feel put on the spot. When placing a reference request, it's always best to provide potential references with an out. In your request, don’t say that a position is your dream job or make them feel they’re your only option. Instead, try asking, "Would you feel comfortable serving as a reference for a position I'm interviewing for?" 

You never want to make the former employer think they can’t say no. If you add pressure to the request, it will likely show up in their reference.

3. Make It Easy for Them

When you consider how to ask someone to be a reference, it always helps to provide them the details of exactly what you hope they cover in their reference. This could be specific qualities or skills that relate to the job description. It helps to provide a copy of your most recent resume and some details about the role you hope to interview.

4. Check the Spelling, Grammar, and Formatting

Sometimes, potential employers will ask for a reference letter rather than a phone call. While we hope your former colleagues and/or former bosses will take the time to carefully edit their reference, double-check their writing. You may also need to reformat their letter to fit a business letter template.

This person represents your professionalism, so you want their letter to really shine. In some cases, your reference may prefer you craft the letter for them to edit and approve. That’s totally normal and acceptable as well.

5. Send a Thank You Card

We often thank the person who referred us to the role and the people who interviewed us, but we forget to thank the people who cemented our position in the seat. This thank you is a small gesture that goes a very long way. After your former boss goes out of their way to vouch for your professional capability, send them a handwritten, personalized thank you card to show your gratitude.

Bonus: References for the 21st Century

How to ask someone to be a reference: Person taps on iPhone screen

The reference process has remained largely unchanged for decades. Searchlight is a modernized platform that digitizes the entire process of asking and collecting your references and allows you to reshare references with as many prospective employers as you’d like, eliminating the need to re-ask the same person for a reference in the future. 

Searchlight also helps you to support a former colleague. Why not pay it forward by writing a reference for your past co-worker? This way, they don't have to spend time emailing around for references while they're already preoccupied with finding new employment. 

A good reference is worth its weight in gold, so do yourself a favor and invest in this aspect of your job search while following our tips on etiquette. You'll be glad you took these few simple steps that landed you your new dream job.

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