Key Steps to Asking for a Reference

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated January 25, 2023

Published January 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Asking for a reference is just as important as any other part of your interview process. How you go about asking for a reference could make all the difference in whether you get that job. There are several steps to follow to ensure that you are asking for a reference in the right way to increase your chances of landing your dream job. In this article, we explain the key points to follow if you want to ensure you get a glowing reference from your past employer.

Why is asking for a reference important?

Reference letters offer a certain level of credibility and professionalism. They show that your former employer was willing to take the time to properly vouch for you, which then speaks highly of the mark you left them with. However, there is no right or wrong way to do it. The best thing to do is to ask your reference about what may be the easiest method for them. It could be a phone call, email or a printed letter. Since your reference is taking time out of their schedule to do you a favour, it is only reasonable to get their opinion on what works best for them.

Offer your references all of the options and let them know that you are comfortable with whichever is convenient for them. Try your best to make it simple, quick and easy for your former employer to set up a call with your prospective employer. They likely want to help but may not have that much time available. Share all of your options with them and allow them to pick one that suits their needs best. In any form of communication with your former employer, remember to stay positive, kind, respectful, and professional.

Related: What Are Employee References? (With Types and Template)

Key steps to asking for a reference

Asking for a reference is an important step in the interviewing process. This is your chance to have someone else validate all the strengths you talked about during your interview. Here are the key steps to focus on when it comes to asking for a reference:

1. Select your references carefully

Before asking for a reference, make a list of which former employers, teachers or supervisors you would consider as your candidates. The first thing to be certain of before making your choice is the type of relationship you had with this reference. Try to include only the employers you feel you had a positive relationship with to ensure that favourable feedback will be given.

When considering your reference choices, identify their role in the organization and how their position or job function is relevant to yours. Your references should be individuals you have worked closely with who have had a higher status within the corporation. A supervisor or manager is ideal. You may also consider former teachers or a supervisor at any volunteer jobs you have had. Someone at a senior level will not only have a clearer picture of who you are professionally but will also add more credibility to your review.

Place your references in order by how recently you worked together. The more recent the work connection is, the more relevant the reference is to the future employer. Potential references should also be individuals with whom you maintain at least some contact. Cross your first boss off the list if you have not spoken with them in a decade.

Related: Who Can I Use as a Reference for My First Job? (With Tips)

2. Skip your current employer

Unless you're interviewing for a job within the same company that your current boss is already aware of, you should steer clear of asking your current employer to vouch for you because if you do not want your employer to know that you are looking for other job opportunities, they are not the best candidate to include. It is perfectly acceptable to explain to a potential employer that you do not wish to share the contact information of your current supervisor because they are unaware that you are job hunting.

Instead, provide the previous employer you had. You can also turn to your volunteering activity supervisors to share their excellent feedback about you as a volunteer.

Related: How to Quit a Job the Right Way

3. Get permission from your references

Before you submit your reference's contact information to an employer, contact them yourself by phone, mail or email. If you have not spoken with them recently, you may have to refresh your former employer's memory, so they know who they are talking to. You may also want to remind them about some of your strengths from when you worked together.

Remember to be polite. Before jumping into asking for a favour, engage in small talk. Ask how they are doing, how work has been lately or if they have any vacations coming up. You want the conversation to be smooth and natural. Once you have gotten into a real conversation, mention that you are deep in a job hunt and have come across a really interesting position. Ask them if they would mind providing the employer with a reference.

Should your former employer not wish to provide a reference, you should graciously accept their rejection and thank them anyway. Never forget to end the conversation on a positive note. If your former employer is happy to help but does not have much time available, try to find a way to work around their busy schedule. This means that they will have plenty of notice beforehand, and the process will be easy for them. Give them a few days to prepare a letter or carve out time for a phone call during their busy week. Once you get their permission, you may share their contact information with the employer.

You may also ask your past employers or anyone on your reference shortlist if they can provide a reference for you even before your interview. Once you get further into the interviewing process, things can sometimes progress quickly. You can save time and reduce stress for yourself and your former employer by giving them a heads up early on.

Related: I Don't Have any References for a Job Application (With Tips)

4. Review your written requests before sending

If you are asking for a request formally and are making contact with a former employer by mail or email, take a moment to carefully review your grammar and spelling, taking care to avoid any typos or technical errors. You want to remind your former employer of what a great employee you are. Submitting content that reflects your professionalism through past actions is preferable. Be clear and concise. The goal is to make contact, get a message across and maintain your reputation at the same time.


  • How to Request a Business Reference in 6 Simple Steps

  • How to Write a Professional Email

5. Be polite

While it is customary for a former employer to provide a reference for their former employees as they search for new jobs, they are not obligated to do so. If you want to get a former employer to help, be polite, respectful and professional. Remember, you may need to contact them multiple times, so good manners must be presented at all times. Be understanding of their limited time and keep your conversation positive and upbeat. Many employers want to help you and can be quite receptive to your requests.

Related: Personal vs. Professional References: What's the Difference?

6. Provide all the details about the job

When you are asking for a reference, you're asking for someone to vouch for your abilities that match the job's requirements. Explain all the necessary details about the job you are applying for by providing a list of duties, responsibilities and the qualities they are seeking in an ideal candidate.

In order for your former employer to give you a good reference, they need to understand the position and how it relates to what they already know about you. If the job is in an entirely different field, then they may want to focus on your work ethic and professionalism. Either way, the more information they have, the easier it is for them to provide a good reference for you.

Related: When Should You Include References on Your Resume?

7. Follow up and give your references an update

This is arguably the most critical part of the entire process. If you do get the job, you should let your reference know about it and kindly thank them for helping you achieve this goal. If you did not get the job, you should still provide an update. Not only is it the professional and respectable thing to do, but in the event of a different job offer, you may want to call on them again for their support. Any professional relationships you have should be maintained and ended on a positive note.

Related: What Is a Background Check?

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