Reference Letter: Who you should ask and how


Imagine this: you are looking for a restaurant for a big reunion. Instead of just making your decision entirely based on what is written on the restaurants’ website. you looked up the restaurant on OpenRice, and listen to other customers who have been there. With others reviews, you could make a more informed decision.

Reference letters are like OpenRice, just more professional.From the hiring manager’s perspective, reference letter helps them understand applicants’ capability and work ethics. Cover letter and cv lean towards the applicant, as they are both written by applicants to highlight their personal achievements. Reference letters are more objective, because of the fact that it was written by a third party.

Now you understand why we need reference letters, who should you ask to be your referer? How can you ask without it being awkward or appearing rude?

Who you should ask

Reference letters tell hiring managers whether you are capable to perform well, and if your personality fits the 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, “who” is a very important issue to tackle.

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 definitely be advantageous for your application. However, not all of us are buddies with our former (or current) boss, does that mean you are doomed? 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 examples of when you excel at work.

  • Not the ghost of Christmas past: You are applying to tutor at a kindergarten, and you remember that you used to volunteer at a local community centre back when you were in high school. Should you ask your supervisor at the time to write you a reference letter now? Even if the supervisor still remember you a decade ago, it is still not a good idea. Employers are looking for updated comments about you, showing them how good you were with children when you were a teen is not going to convince them that you still do now!

  • Has good communication skills: This is probably one of the less discussed characteristic of a good reference. Since you are essentially asking them to WRITE a reference letter, you should ask someone who can express themselves clearly. Besides, hiring managers may call your reference to ask about you. It would certainly be good for you if your reference can tell them about your strengths in a persuasive manner!

So who, exactly, should you ask to write you that reference letter?

  • Your former supervisor, 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/department: You don’t necessarily have to find your team manager to write you that reference. If you have worked on a project with another manager, and you believe you performed well, feel free to approach that manager to see if they are willing to help.

  • Your intern supervisor: Just like asking for your supervisor when you hold a full-time job, those who interned at a company can ask your supervisor for a reference letter by the end of your internship.

  • Your professor: This is probably a bit controversial, but hear me out first. If you are applying for research assistant, or you have just graduated with zero internship experience, your professors could be a good reference. They can talk about your research and problem-solving skills, which can all be transferred to the workplace. So feel free to ask your professor if you performed well in their class!

How to ask for the reference letter

It may be intimidating and awkard to ask someone, especially if they were your boss, to help you. Do it the wrong way, you may end up losing a valuable network and not getting the letter at all! Before you approach your reference-to-be, take a deep breath and do that followings:

  • Ask face-to-face: The thought of it 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 in the pantry, is a great way to see if someone can help!

  • Explain why: With all the people in the company, why did you choose this particular person to be your reference? 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 reference.

  • 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. Regardless, it is smart to give them a way out when you approach them. Try saying “I would love for you to be my reference. However, I get that the peak season is approaching, and I would understand if you don’t have time to do so.”

  • Email: They said yes! If the person agrees to writing you a reference letter, don’t forget to email them soon about the matter. In your email, thank the person 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. If you know that the hiring company may contact your reference, remember to give them a heads-up in the email.

A gentle reminder: if you are job-hopping, try to ask your previous employer (if you haven’t the last time). 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.

4 min read

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