How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference: Tact and Tactics

Choose your references wisely.

You and they know that your future job may depend on their reviews of your performance. 

Asking someone to be a reference for your job application is serious business. 

  • It makes a lot of people nervous.
  • It seems like an imposition (which it is—it’s a solid favor).

Show some tact in the tactics you employ in asking them.

There’s a process you can use.

I’ll walk you through it.

Understanding the Role of References

References play a crucial role in the job search process—if they play a role at all. 

What? Aren’t references contacted any more?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But you must be prepared for the times references are required. When references are contacted, your potential job may be on the line.

Your references should be professionals you’ve worked for, worked with, or studied under—people who have seen your work in the real world and can attest to how well you performed. 

They may not be personal friends, and you may barely know them, but they may have what it takes to convince a recruiter or hiring manager that you’re the right person for the job.

Following these suggestions will give you the confidence and skills necessary to prepare, approach, and secure great recommendations.

Choosing Your References Wisely

Good references are from varied backgrounds and job functions.  They include professional, academic, and personal contacts. 

Find individuals who can provide insights into your character, work ethic, and accomplishments. If you can draw on all three fields as necessary, this broadens your appeal.

Business References

  • Former supervisor
  • Current manager
  • Colleague or team member
  • Client or customer
  • Industry mentor

Academic References

  • Professor or academic advisor
  • Department chair or Dean
  • Research supervisor
  • Fellow student
  • Tutor or teaching assistant

Personal References

  • Volunteer Coordinator
  • Coach or instructor
  • Faith leader
  • Family friend
  • Neighbor or community member

It bears repeating that a mixture of direct supervisors, colleagues, and academic advisors is important. These show the depth and breadth of your interests and abilities.

Criteria for selecting references

Prioritizing your list of references will help you select the best mix for each specific job application.

Think of each reference in terms of relevance, recency, and relationship.


All the interviewers want is to know whether you’re a good fit for a specific position.

Ask yourself how relevant your reference’s opinion is to the jobs you want and, more specifically, the job description you’re interested in. If they describe excellent but irrelevant skills, the hiring manager or recruiter may wonder why you suggested them as a reference in the first place.


How long has it been since you worked with a particular reference? The more current your relationship, the better.

However, if your background in a desired skill or position is from a more distant past, it could still be highly relevant. You must determine relevancy first, then recency.


What is your relationship with your reference? For it to be credible, this relationship must be put into the context of professionalism. 

Clearly, asking a family member to be a reference for a highly skilled position requiring on-the-job experience just isn’t credible. However, choosing a reference based on a relationship can be more subtle than this. You must judge each case individually.

Evaluate each potential reference by relationship to build the most compelling case for your job fitness.

Preparing to Ask for a Reference

Gather your contact information for each potential reference.

You’ll want to provide your contacts with a small packet of information relevant to you and your job search, including:

  • An updated résumé. 
  • The job description.
  • A cover letter (optional).
  • Professional biography or summary.
  • Instructions for submitting the reference.
  • Your contact information.
  • A thank you letter.

This packet will be slightly different for each contact. It’s worth taking the time to do this right, as it will help your contacts understand what you’re asking them to do and the best way to go about it. With this packet, they can plan their approach.

Tailor the packet to your contact. Depending on your relationship, it may be more or less formal, but it should always be complete and professional.

How to Ask for a Reference

Time Your Request Appropriately

The best time to ask someone to be a reference is before you start applying for a job or jobs.

Consider the situation: 

  1. You are asking someone for a favor. 
  2. They need time to think and respond to your request. 
  3. If they agree, they need time to prepare, hopefully with your support packet.

As they say, timing is everything. Your references need lead time for every step of the process. Make it easy on them so that you get a great result.

Tactfully Make the Request

You’re now ready to ask for a reference. 

As you present yourself:

  • Always act professionally.
  • Use sincerity and gratitude to let them know they are appreciated. 
  • Be ready to answer questions based on your background and the job you want.
  • Tell them why you chose to contact them for a reference.
  • Give them a way out if they feel they must decline.

If They Agree

Agreeing to be your reference is an honor. Treat it as such. Express gratitude and thank them for their willingness to help.

Ensure that they get your support packet. Ask them how best to deliver it.

Let them know how to submit the reference.

Keep them informed along the way. Share updates on your job search and outcomes at appropriate times.

Handling a "No"

There are times when you may be tactfully denied. Don’t take it personally. Many people feel uncomfortable being on the spot for offering a reference, so respect their wish to decline. Whatever their reasons, you won’t get a good reference if your contact isn’t comfortable talking about you.

Remember: You can find other contacts. Move on quickly and resume your quest.

Looking Forward

Using these tactics with tact can land you a great collection of references. With great references, you have a much better chance of landing that great job.

As you progress with your job search, you may find that you need support and assistance. This is especially true with the amount of document preparation you must go through. 

Our service,, uses the power of AI to automate the job application process. You don’t need to hand-tailor every résumé, cover letter, and follow-up. We automate this for you, using AI to target these documents to the specific job description you have chosen. 

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If you have questions, you can reach us by email.

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