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How to Ask for a Job Reference, No Matter Your Age or Position

By August 8, 2018January 25th, 2022No Comments
two managers, woman and man, interviewing candidate for a job, asking candidate about his job reference

I received the following reference request from a student. I teach public speaking, communication, and storytelling as an adjunct at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. Except for the name, this is EXACTLY what I received in the email. Because of this email and a second, similar one from another student, I now cover the Art & Science of Asking for a Job Reference in my class.

I wrote Polly (fictitious name) back a lengthy “teachable moment,” outlining referrals and the right way to ask for one, irrespective of your age or position. I re-wrote my note to her in this format to be blog-friendly.

—–Original Message—–
From: Polly Carbonate (fictitious name)
To: Ira Koretsky 
Subject: Reference

Hi Professor,
I really enjoyed being in your class as a BSE student last semester. I am listing you as a reference for my job.
Thanks in advance.
Polly Carbonate

The Story of the Bad Speller

Let me share a story. 15 years or so ago, David, a graphic designer, was working for me as a subcontractor. He was excellent. And as such, I said to him on several occasions, “I’ll be a reference for you anytime. Just let me know in advance.” One day, I received a telephone call from a hiring manager at a company (Let’s call her Jennifer). Jennifer mentions she is calling on behalf of ABC Company as David has applied for the position of a graphic designer.

Let’s stop here. I always, always, always told David, “please check with me before you use my name.” I wanted to ensure I would represent him to the prospective company, in the best light.

Well, this was his first reference for me. And he did NOT check in with me in advance.

Back to the telephone call with Jennifer. I’m thinking, “I’ve hired several designers throughout my career. David’s work is excellent. I feel VERY comfortable answering whatever questions would come my way. No problem.”

I decided to do the interview without any of the normal information I request (see below, What To Provide in Advance).

Jennifer asks me all of the typical questions about work ethic, quality of work, team player, what do you like most about David, would you hire him again, you know these types of questions. All softballs. After about 15 minutes of these softball questions, she asks, “Is there anything you can think of that David could improve upon, even just a little?”

Yes! I remember this word-for-word. Why? It will become clear why in a few sentences. At this time, I think to myself, “David can’t be perfect, no one is. What can I, therefore, tell her that sounds right and won’t hurt David’s chance of being hired?” A lightbulb went off. I had the answer. Spelling! In 20 plus years, I have yet to work with a designer who truly cares about spelling the way a marketer would care. Therefore, I tell Jennifer, “Spelling. David is an excellent designer… just needs to be a little better at checking spelling before he submits his deliverables to me.” Jennifer responds, “Thank you.” And the interview ended.

The next day, I get a telephone call from a very irate David. As soon as I say hello, I hear his voice, “How could you tell them that I was bad at spelling? I was interviewing for a graphic designer and newsletter editor position!!!”

Now, two common thoughts typically pop into one’s mind. First the apologetic thought, “Oops, sorry.” And second, the defensive thought, “Why didn’t you coordinate with me first, like I asked you to?” I did indeed apologize. AND I also admonished him for not preparing me. He grumbled and apologized. And in the end, he still got the job. Phew!


Golden Rule #1

ALWAYS ask for permission to be included as a reference, BEFORE you put someone’s name down on the form

Here are some of the key reasons why you must, must, must coordinate in advance:

  1. Some people don’t do references period.
  2. Some people won’t do references at work. This means they will only be a reference during non-work hours such as before, lunch, or in the evening. If they receive a call during the wrong time, the hiring professional may be on the receiving end of an unhappy reference.
  3. Some people don’t want you to use a specific email address, typically his/her work email.
  4. Some people won’t say the “right things” because he/she has not been prepared well by you (see #5)
  5. Sometimes you may judge incorrectly that the reference will say good things about you (you have to ask him/her specifically about this if you are unsure)
  6. Some people will be selective when he/she says yes to be a reference. Meaning, the prospective reference does not “agree” with the prospective company’s values, the industry is potentially controversial, he/she doesn’t like the organization, etc.
  7. Some people require the applicant to provide all of the information needed before saying yes.

#7 is where I am. A good hiring professional WILL ask softball questions and then transition to difficult questions to ensure the company is doing its due diligence.

Golden Rule #2
Ask your reference what information he/she wants, how they prefer to be contacted (telephone or email address), and time availability (ask for a preferred day of the week and time of day).


For many seasoned professionals, they will typically ask for the following before they say yes:

  • Name of the company with the website address
  • Name of the hiring manager
  • Resume and cover letter you emailed
  • Two well-crafted paragraphs of 1) why you want the job and 2) why I am a good reference for you
  • Position description (word, pdf, or link)

For me to be a reference, I always ask for the above plus these below. Even better, you as the job seeker, should minimize the level of effort everywhere you can for your reference–write everything and let her/him edit.

  • What is your Better Tomorrow Message (BTM™) of why you are perfect for this job? Include the short benefit statement of the BTMTM along with about 50 to 75 words in support of “Why you are a great candidate for this position?” Think of this as your elevator pitch of your story. Your story tells the hiring company why you want the job and why you are qualified for the job
  • Three important messages you want me to get across to the hiring manager that supports your BTMTM
  • A paragraph each for the important messages written from my perspective such that I can frankly/truthfully say I have observed these skills, attitudes, attributes, qualities, etc. in your work activities
  • Link to your LinkedIn profile®

Golden Rule #3
Say thank you. Thank your reference. Keep him/her in the loop about what you are doing, what companies you are applying to, your successes, your lessons learned, etc.

Bonus, Golden Rule #4

Maintain a list of active references. Maintain positive relationships. Spend time building and nurturing these hard-earned relationships.

Bonus, Golden Rule #5

Always keep your key job hunting materials current. This includes and is not limited to your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile®, about me elevator pitch, and portfolio of example work products.

Photography Source:  Shutterstock
#career #storytelling #chiefstoryteller

Ira Koretsky

Ira Koretsky has built The Chief Storyteller® into one of the most recognized names in communication, especially business storytelling. He has delivered over 500 keynote presentations and workshops in nearly a dozen countries, in more than one hundred cities, across 30 plus industries. His specialties are simplifying the complex and communicating when the stakes are high. He is also an adjunct professor in public speaking and storytelling at the University of Maryland's Business School. With over 25 years of experience, he is a sought-after storytelling coach, global speaker, trainer, consultant, communication coach, and public speaking coach.