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How to ask for a reference when applying for a new role

Kate Allen, Managing Director, Allen Associates

Whether within your CV or further down the line, submitting references is an inevitability of the job hunt. No matter how slick your CV or convincing your cover letter, it’s only normal for a prospective Employer to seek validation of your experience straight from the horse’s mouth.

That said, asking for a reference from a former Employer isn’t always easy: depending on the circumstances, it can be as awkward as turning up at your ex-partner’s house to ask for the possessions you left behind. Generally speaking, however, the nature of your relationship with your former manager should determine how easy it is to get a reference: if you left on good terms, providing a reference should be a fact of life for your previous Employer.

If you’ve earned good references, that’s half the battle - however, that isn’t to say you should go in all guns blazing and demand a glowing review of your past performance. When it comes to requesting references, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach the situation:

Choose the right people

Compiling a short list of references will provide a future Employer with a ticket to your past, so think carefully before including that supervisor who always had a bone to pick. The aim of the game is to select people who will speak highly of your performance; leaders who will vouch for your achievements.

If you didn’t see eye to eye with a former manager, consider choosing another senior figure you worked closely with during your time in the role. It’s unlikely for a hiring manager to question your decision, but if they do, you can say that this is the person who knows your work the best. While recent references are always better than ancient history, don’t be too quick to ignore past experiences if they are relevant to the job you are applying for.

Keep it polite and professional

Once your wish list is complete, it’s time to get in touch. A quick call to ask whether you may use them as a reference is advisable; an impersonal email stating your decision to name them on your application is not. If years have passed since you last spoke to this person, start by reminding them of your time at the company and what you worked on together before giving them a brief summary of what you’ve been up to since leaving.

Asking for a reference is only as awkward as you make it. When you get to the question itself, the key is to ask as politely as possible and give them the opportunity to refuse gracefully. For example, “Would you feel comfortable providing a reference to a potential Employer?” If they are reluctant to agree, leave it there and move on. The last thing you want is a “neutral” reference, as many Employers may take this to mean a former manager has no positive words to say.

Give them enough notice

Just like most professionals, your previous Employers have busy schedules. Springing something like this on them at the very last moment will only highlight your lack of organisational and time management skills. What’s more, the result is likely to be rushed and barely thought through as the time-frame in which the Employer was given was too tight to dig up old records for review.

If you want to come across as a well-prepared professional, contact your chosen references before beginning the job hunt. Give them notice and let them know what kind of roles you’ll be applying for: this will give them sufficient time to prepare a reference that will be relevant to your prospective Employers.

Always follow up

People like to know the outcome of a process they were involved with, so it’s important to follow up and let your referees know immediately each time you submit their name as a reference. If a job offer lands in your lap following a reference check, don’t forget to thank your referees for the part they played. An email will be appreciated, but a handwritten card will have much more of an impact. Should you wish to reach out to them in the future, keeping them sweet will put you in stead for many more glowing references later down the line.

Over the last 20 years, we have grown as a business to become one of the leading independent Recruitment agencies in Oxfordshire, and in 2018 have opened our first London office, to service Clients in the capital.

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