Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Do's and Don't's Of Asking For References


A local business called me recently. They called to ask about someone who used to work in this library. "[name] listed you as a reference. Do you have a moment to talk?" After a brief pause while I shifted mental gears, I happily spoke with the caller. The former employee was someone we'd been sorry to see go. But after I'd hung up, I was left feeling a little awkward. I said lots of good things, but coming out of the blue like that - with no idea exactly what the job entailed - I didn't do as good of a job as I could have.

This was the most recent instance, but this isn't uncommon. I'd say I get calls like that five or six times each semester. I've only been a director for three years, so I can't imagine how often people who've been bosses longer get those kinds of calls. I can pretty much always come up with something helpful to say, but these calls that come with no warning always leave me feeling caught flat-footed.

In the interest of cutting down on this feeling, or at the very least helping other people to not be caught out the way I was, here's my advice for how to handle references.

When you want someone to serve as a reference (for whatever circumstance)...
  • Ask them well ahead of time. "Graduation is coming up fast and I'm going to start looking for a job. May I list you as a reference?"
  • Be professional, but polite, when you ask. 
  • Warning people again when you apply for a job - each and every time you do, not just at the beginning of a job search.
  • Always let your references know as much as possible about the job(s). Sometimes all it takes is, "I'm applying to be a substitute teacher while I look for more permanent gigs," but if you can I recommend including a link to the job advertisement.
  • If it's been a while since you talked to/worked with/took a class from the person, let the know how you've changed and what you've done in the intervening time. Send them a recent resume/CV, a transcript, etc.
  • Even after all this prep, you need to be prepared for people to say no. You obviously want to ask people who you think have a good opinion of you and will help your case (different application processes ask for different kinds of references, such as coworkers or direct supervisors). However, the biggest reason you need to ask ahead of time is what if this person doesn't like you after all. True story: I've turned down more than one person who asked me to be a reference.

When you need a letter of reference...

  • All of the above still applies.
  • You should also offer to write a draft letter for them to use. If you're unsure what to include in a letter like that, turn to your friendly neighborhood search engine and look for "[grad school/job/etc.] recommendation letter." Alternatively, a lot of college/university career placement centers have samples you can use. Most people will turn you down, but some will take the letter you wrote and sign it.
  • Give the person you've asked for a reference as much warning as possible. Being available for a phone call is one thing, but writing a letter can be a serious time commitment.

In general...

  • Keep in touch with professors and former employers and anybody else who could serve as a reference, when you can. This can be hard, but since these people are likely past mentors, you might already be in touch anyway. Don't force it, though.
  • When you decide who to ask, remember that you'll want them to be able to speak to your qualities and experiences with the people (person) in charge of hiring decisions. I have a list of a group of people who I can ask, and not all of them are former supervisors. Letting your references know why you've asked them, such as "Jeff, I'm asking because you and I were part of the team that rewrote that part of the core curriculum, and faculty collaboration is a big part of the job description."
  • Be respectful of other people's time. 

Those of you who are asked to be references: did I leave anything out?

And good luck with your job searches.


  1. Unfortunately, that isn't always best. I was applying for all kinds of jobs (retail, librarian, library paraprofessional, web design, etc.) and letting my references know I had applied for every single job would have annoyed them more than anything and spammed their e-mail box. I did let them know every few months that I was still looking and applying for certain jobs. My current retail job never did call my references for reasons that mystify me.

    1. I wouldn't mind. If you feel awkward, ask your references what they would prefer.