Asking for Job References: Dos and Don'ts

Asking for job references from a supervisor or manager can be an awkward moment, particularly for people in their first jobs. It's like asking someone you don't know for a favor, and most people are uncomfortable with that situation.

The fact is that you do need references in your career and for job applications. That's unavoidable, and in practice, you're asking for something the people you ask will understand. We've come up some tips to make the process a bit simpler and to explain some of the issues involved in asking for a reference.

Overview

A job reference has to operate as a true reference to your skills, your performance, and your employment record. A new employer will check with your references, and will want to discuss your work and your employment history in detail, and sometimes in technical terms. All of this means you need to select a reference who can competently discuss employment issues. You need much more than just someone who'll give you a good reference. The new employer will want facts, and may raise issues like your attendance record, or other purely employer issues. Some references give a good impression, others don't.

Selecting your reference

Your reference has to be able to deal with the new job's requirements in context with your current or previous position. If you're going for a new job, which is based on a new qualification, the requirements new job may be well above your prior work. The previous employer may be able to say you're a great mail clerk, but not able to say you're a good writer. When you select your reference, you will need to assess:

  • Whether the person you select is likely to be a credible reference.
  • If the person is articulate, and a good prospect for portraying your skills well.
  • The reliability of the person as a reference. There have been reports in the employment industry of "reference sabotage", where references are counterproductive, in some cases because of the individual's relationship with the reference.

Dos:

  • Make sure you pick a reference that exudes confidence: This gives you peace of mind when you apply for any job.
  • Use references with good communications skills, who can speak effectively: The person should be someone with excellent conversational skills, and good expression.
  • Make sure you're allowed to use the person as a reference: Some people do not want to be contacted so be sure to ask first.
  • Use references that can attest to a good working relationship: Some managers and supervisors will agree to be references on principle, but don't necessarily have the sort of working relationship which translates into good references. They may be ignorant about some of the important aspects of your work.

Don'ts:

  • Don't have unrealistic expectations of a reference: Some references mean well, but simply can't do the job. Talk to them about what you would like for them to touch on.
  • Don't spring surprises on your manager: The surest way of creating issues with your boss is a call asking about your job skills when your boss didn't know you were applying for another position.