Reference Letter: Who You Should Ask and How

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The review culture is pretty much the norm now. Before we book a table at a restaurant, or decide on a holiday destination, or book a hotel, we turn to other people for their experiences and recommendations. This is made very easy with the internet, websites such as OpenRice and Trip Advisor helping us make an informed decision. It's normal - we want to do our due diligence and research for our own peace of minds.

Therefore, when it comes to a hiring manager making an informed decision on a candidate, it's no different. They too will do their due diligence, whether it's looking up your social media, or getting reference letters. A reference letter helps them understand an applicants’ capability and their work ethics, from someone else's point of view. You can think of reference letter as a review, of you! Cover letters and CVs will obviously lean in favour towards the applicant, as they are self-written to highlight their personal achievements to sell themselves. Reference letters are more objective, as they are written by a third party.

Now you understand why reference letters are important to employers, the question is who should you ask to be your referee? And how can you ask without it being awkward or appearing rude?

Who Should You Ask?

Reference letters tell hiring managers whether you are capable to perform well in your work and with others, and if your personality and work style fits their company culture. According to Ryan Sutton, district manager of Robert Half Technology, a reference helps to judge somebody’s professionalism and behavior. This is why when it comes to reference letters, you should think carefully who to ask.

It is common to ask your direct supervisor or manager to help you with your letter. Your potential employer would get to know you from an employer’s perspective, which would be advantageous for your application (provided you have a good relationship with your boss). For those who are not on the best of terms with their former (or current) boss, what should you do? Don’t worry, you can find someone else, as long as they fit the following criteria:

  • Knows You Well: Founder and CEO of Work It Daily said that companies expect your reference to comment on your strengths and weaknesses. It is best if your reference knows you well on a personal level, or at least can provide concrete examples of when you have excelled at work.

  • Not the Ghost of Christmas Past: You should only ask people who know you on a personal level now, so that the comments they write about you are relevant and updated. Don't ask your supervisor from a decade ago - even if they still remember you, and you still keep in touch. A lot can happen in a year, let alone a decade, so their experience of what you were like to work with is outdated.

  • Has Good Communication Skills: This is probably one of the less discussed characteristics of a good reference. You should ask someone who can express themselves clearly, both in writing and in person! There's a chance that the hiring managers will call your referee to ask about you. It'd only work in your favour if your referee could sell you well too.

So who exactly can you ask to write you that reference letter?

  • Your former supervisor or manager: Regardless of whether or not your supervisor was from a full-time role or an internship position, if you had a great relationship with a former boss, this works perfectly. The hiring manager would want to know how you worked in a team from a manager's point of view and your boss would be the best person to ask.

  • Your former colleagues (ideally at a senior position): More often than not, those who actually fought the battles with you side-by-side know you better than your commander.

  • A manager from another team or department: If for whatever reason your direct manager cannot write a reference letter for you - don't worry. If you have worked on a project with another manager, and you believe you performed well with them, feel free to approach that manager to see if they are willing to help.

  • Your professor: Your professors can talk about your work and research, your problem-solving skills, and your general attitude to your education. This is all valuable information - skills and attitudes which can all be transferred to the workplace.

How to Ask For That Reference Letter

It may be intimidating and awkward to ask someone, especially if they were your superior, to help you. Before you approach your referee-to-be, take a deep breath and follow these guidelines:

  • Ask face-to-face if possible: The thought of this may be daunting, but asking directly is often the best way! If it is someone you see everyday at work, approach them in an informal setting, such as the pantry. This is a casual way to see if someone can help - with less pressure on them. If for whatever reason you are not able to see them face-to-face, give them a call to make it more personable. Your last resort should be to email them.

  • Explain why: With all the people in the company, why did you choose this particular person to be your referee? Maybe it was because they are your manager, or because you worked with them on a project. Whatever the reason is, don’t forget to explain why you think they are your ideal person to write a letter about you.

  • Give them a way out: Don’t forget that the other party has every right to say no. They may be busy at the moment, or simply think they are not familiar with you enough to write you a reference letter. You shouldn't put pressure on them writing a letter for you, as after all, they are doing you a favour. Be polite in asking and be understanding if they say no!

Once your referee has agreed to write you a letter, don't forget to email them as soon as possible. In your email, thank them for assisting you, and explain what position you applied for and why you think your experience with that person would be useful in your application. Give them as much positive material to use as possible for them to write the letter - perhaps remind them what work you did with or for them, and the achievements during this time. If you know that the hiring company may contact your referee, remember to give them a heads-up in the email.

A gentle reminder: if you are applying to a new job, don't ask your existing employer to be a referee, unless they are aware of you moving jobs. Try asking your previous employer. If the hiring company asks for a reference from your current employer, ask if you can provide that later.

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Sophia Wong

Brand and Marketing Strategist in Hong Kong, writes about career, job hunting and interview tips.

5 min read

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