It’s no secret: asking for references can be intimidating. Since references often don’t come from the company you’re working at currently — especially if you haven’t yet told them you’re sniffing out new opportunities — you often must reach out to colleagues from across the spectrum of your career. This means contacting people you may not have spoken to in a while, and asking them to take time out of their schedule to remember your attributes and speak about them with your potential employers. The quality of your references can make or break certain hiring processes, so it’s of the utmost importance to find the right people.
Although sending the same stock email out to each potential reference can save you time, it’s not advised. A reference request should be personalized to the person you’re sending it to, and the type of relationship you had with them.
We reached out to career experts Tiffany Franklin, who is the founder of TFJ Career Coaching and works in career services at an Ivy League School and Emily Kapit, MS, MRW, ACRW, CPRW, career strategist and owner of ReFresh Your Step career consultancy, to learn more about the right way to ask someone to serve as a reference over email.
“You want them to feel like you’re asking them because you truly want them to be a reference, not just because you have to have three,” says Kapit, underscoring the importance of tailoring each request to the person you’re reaching out to.
To get an idea of what personalized email requests for references would look like, these five templates give a full idea of what type of language is appropriate for different relationships.
For A Former Boss
Hi Donna! I hope you have been doing well. It’s hard to believe it has been three years since we worked together. I learned so much while we were working on the XYZ project and have fond memories of working at [company name].
Things have been good here. I have enjoyed working at [company name] for the past two years and getting to explore the city of Denver. After much contemplation, I’ve decided it’s time for new challenges, so I’m beginning to search for Marketing Director roles and hope to relocate to San Diego later this year.
Would you be available to serve as a reference and provide a positive recommendation for me? If you are, I would be happy to send you my resume and a sample job description so you have an updated view of my experience and what I’m seeking.
Thank you for considering this. I look forward to connecting with you again and hearing your updates.
This reference request, written by Franklin, masterfully re-establishes the connection with the former boss and brings them up to speed on your recent professional history. “The wording of your message to re-introduce yourself to a potential reference will depend on the nature of the relationship (former boss vs. coworker), how close you were at the time, whether you saw each other outside of work in social settings and exactly how long has it been since you last connected,” Franklin says. She adds that it’s also important to consider the timing of your request and how far you are in the job search process, which can determine the likelihood that they will be imminently contacted.
For A Former Collaborator
I hope you’re well. I’ve been following your career via LinkedIn for the last several years and see that you’ve moved up to [new role] — congratulations! In the last few years, I have also moved up and am currently doing [current role]. I’m looking to transition to an even more senior role and am conducting both an internal and an external search regarding future opportunities. In doing so, I was reflecting on who would be a really good reference for me, and felt that you would be one.
I recall our time working on [particular project] and I thought that given what I’m looking for in that next role, you would be a great person to speak to the skills I bring to the table as well as the kind of hard worker that I am, and would really appreciate if you could serve as a reference for me.
Of course, I am more than happy to do the same for you at any point in time. Please do let me know. Additionally, if you would be so kind as to put the recommendation on my LinkedIn profile, I would greatly appreciate that. Again, I would be more than happy to do the same for you.
I wish you continued success in your career and look forward to being in touch. Please do reach out with any questions!
All the best,
This template, written by Kapit, contains a few powerful elements. First of all, it gives the recommender a specific reason why you’re asking them, of all people, to be your reference. Second, you’re following what some call the “golden rule of networking”: offering your help to someone else, so that they may offer their help to you. This particular template offers to recommend or serve as a reference for the other person in return for them doing the same for you — a great strategy for making the “ask” feel much less one-sided.
For A Former Mentor
Hi Mr. Thomas! I hope you’re doing well. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been four years since we worked together at [company name]. How have you been?
I really appreciate all I learned during that time and the guidance you provided. It has been so helpful with my client projects here at [company name]. I have been networking as you suggested and recently became aware of an interesting opportunity to become a Marketing Manager. Given my work on client projects over the past few years, I feel it would be a perfect fit and great next step. Would you be willing to provide a positive recommendation for me? I’ll be happy to provide you with my resume, full details of the job and any other info you would find helpful.
Thank you for considering this. I hope we can catch up properly soon.
This request, written by Franklin, shows the power of a brief — yet humble, respectful and professional – email. When you have reservations about sending a request to someone, or are worried that the connection might be too tenuous, always defer to a humble, professional tone. In addition, Franklin says, “when making any request in life, it’s helpful to use empathy and think about how you would feel if you received a similar request. If you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach that you’re asking for too much or it sounds like you’re sucking up or something like that, re-think the email.”
For A Former Direct Report
I hope all is well with you. I heard you were promoted to [new position] at [former company]. Nice!
I’m reaching out today because I’m looking to make my next career move, and I’m in need of references for the positions I’m applying for. Given our extensive working history together, I thought that you would be able to speak to my ability as a manager, and I was wondering if you would be willing to serve as a reference. If asked, I think that the example of [X project] we worked on together would be particularly salient.
Of course I would be more than willing to act as a reference for you or provide you with any sort of recommendation. Please let me know if you have any questions!
While it’s less common to ask someone who you formerly managed to be a reference for you, it can be appropriate in cases where you’re looking to show off your management skills to the hiring team. Reaching out to a person who was your subordinate has a slightly different tone than asking someone who you worked under. “You want to mirror the tone of the relationship that you had with them in your prior role,” Franklin advises. “That way, the style of your request is consistent with how you have always interacted with that person and won’t seem outside the balance of what that relationship [is] and always [has] been.” Franklin also provides a number of templates outreach examples in her “Essential Guide to Securing References for a Job Search.”
A Former Client
I just heard news that your company recently [accomplishment]. Congratulations! I’m always heartened and delighted to see what your company is doing in the world.
I’m writing today because I’m looking to transition into a new role doing [new job], and I’m looking for a few people who can serve as references for me and speak to my skills as a [your profession]. I thought that the project we worked on last year was a great example of how I can [list skills]. I would be very grateful if you were able to serve as a reference for me.
Please let me know if you have any questions — and I’m also happy to refresh your memory on the details of the project and the role I played if you want me to send anything over.
All the best,
“Try to be specific regarding why you’re asking that particular person to be a reference for you,” counsels Kapit. In this template, praise is given to the former client in order to remind them of their connection to you. In addition, listing specific skills tied to the project you worked on together can help trigger their memory of why exactly they would be qualified to comment on your professional prowess.