Sample Letters and Email Messages Asking for a Reference

Image shows a hand holding up a piece of paper with a small thank you card at the bottom right. Text reads: "Choose someone who: thinks highly of you, can speak about your professional skills. Be sure to: ask permission before sharing their name, give an easy way to decline, and be polite and warm. Mention: why they would be an ideal reference, background information including your current resume, your prospective job, your relevant skills. When you get the job, send a thank you note!"

Image by Hilary Allison © The Balance 2019

If you're applying for a job, it's likely you'll need a reference. It's a good idea to get references lined up before you start a job search. That way you'll have a list of people who can recommend you ready to share with prospective employers. You can ask for a reference with a phone call or through a written email or a hard-copy letter, but either way, you'll want to write your request carefully. 

Here are tips on how to ask for a reference or for a written letter of recommendation, as well as sample letters that you can use as a guideline while writing your own reference request. 

Who to Ask for a Reference

Who you ask for a reference will depend upon what level of your career you’re at – and also whether an employer has requested professional references from work associates, or personal references (sometimes called “character references”) from those who can attest to your integrity, attitude, and work ethic.

Here are a few things to think about as you decide who the best person would be to approach.

Choose Your References Wisely. The person giving you a reference may need to write a letter, fill out a questionnaire, respond to an email, or speak to someone from a potential employer’s human resources department on the phone. If the person doesn't know you well, it'll show.

Choose someone who thinks highly of you, and can speak fluently about your career and talents.

It's important to make sure that the individual who is recommending you for employment can give you not just a reference, but a good reference. Here are tips for choosing the best person to provide a job reference

Always Give the Person You're Asking an Out. Make sure to give the person an easy way to decline to provide you with a reference. A bad reference can be the difference between your getting a job offer— or not. It would be preferable to have the person decline to provide a reference, rather than write a halfhearted or negative letter.

In your reference request, you can say things like, "I know end-of-the-year evaluations are due soon, so if you're too busy to provide a reference, I completely understand," or "It's been five years since we worked together, so if you don't feel comfortable speaking to someone about my work habits after so long, please just let me know." 

How to Ask for a Reference Letter

Ask Nicely. Former co-workers and managers are under no obligation to serve as a reference. You are asking for a favor, so be polite and warm in your request. You can also mention why you thought the person would be an ideal reference. 

Give Your Reference a Heads-Up. Do not give out anyone's name as a reference without their permission and without knowing what they are going to say about you. The individual who is giving you a reference needs to know ahead of time that they may be contacted regarding a reference for you. Once you have their permission, let your reference providers know as soon as you share their names with prospective employers. 

How to Submit a Written Reference Letter

Unless you work daily with a potential reference, it may be more efficient to ask them for a letter of reference in a letter or an email rather than a phone call. If there are specific forms the recommender needs to complete, you may want to send an email message asking for the recommendation, then follow up with a written letter and the forms.

In your letter requesting a reference, it can be helpful to provide the potential recommender with background information, including your current resume and a link to the job description (or a short summary).

You can also briefly mention specific qualities and skills of yours that you would like your reference to mention. If you have any information about how the company will be reaching out to the recommender — phone, email, etc. — you can include those details as well. 

It's a good idea to review sample letters asking for a reference to get ideas for your own letters. These samples, both written and email, include the best ways to phrase your request and how to ask someone to be your reference.

Sample Letter Asking for a Reference

This is a reference letter template. Download the letter template (compatible with Google Docs or Word Online) or read the example below.

Ashton Zimmers
123 Main Street
Anytown, CA 12345
555-555-5555
ashzimm@email.com

May 6, 2020

John Rogers
Office Manager
Acme Corporation
680 Main Boulevard, Ste. 300
Ocean City, CA 93650

Dear Ms. Rogers,

I am reaching out to ask you to provide me a reference for a new opportunity I am seeking with CBI Industries. Of course, I completely understand if you are unable to commit to this. Please just let me know as soon as possible.

I learned a lot about the industry while working for you at Acme Corporation, and I think you would be able to provide the kind of insight into my skills that would increase my chances of landing this new position. As you know, I have recently been employed at VBN Industries, heading their research and development division. The opportunity at CBI Industries is related but would also require many of the sales and marketing techniques I developed while working for you.

Thank you very much for considering my request. I have attached a copy of my updated resume and the job posting for your review. Gary Smith from Human Resources will be the contact person at CBI who will be in touch if you agree to provide the reference for me.

If you have any questions or need any further information, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Sincerely,

Ashton Zimmer

Sample Email Message Asking for a Reference

Subject line: Reference for Ashton Zimmer

Dear Ms. Rogers,

I am reaching out to ask you to provide me a reference for a new opportunity I am seeking with CBI Industries. Of course, I completely understand if you are unable to commit to this. Please just let me know as soon as possible.

I learned a lot about the industry while working for you at Acme Corporation, and I think you would be able to provide the kind of insight into my skills that would increase my chances of landing this new position. As you know, I have recently been employed at VBN Industries, heading their research and development division. The opportunity at CBI Industries is related but would also require many of the sales and marketing techniques I developed while working for you.

Thank you very much for considering my request. I have attached a copy of my updated resume and the job posting for your review. Gary Smith from Human Resources will be the contact person at CBI who will be in touch if you agree to provide the reference for me.

If you have any questions or need any further information, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Best Regards,

Ashton Zimmer
(555) 234-5678
ashzimm@email.com

More Letter Samples Requesting a Reference

Review more examples of letters asking for a reference.

Thank Your Reference Writer

When you get a new job, don't forget to send a thank-you note to the individuals who provided you with a reference. Not only will it let them know that they have helped you, but it will also reiterate your appreciation for their assistance with the job search help.