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Sample Email: Request for a Reference for Your Job Search

By Susan P. Joyce

Typically this is done in a 2-step process. First, you get the person's permission to be a reference for you. Then, when you have an interview scheduled, you follow up to prepare them for the contact from your potential employer.

Remember the CareerBuilder.com study found that bad references can kill as many as 65% of opportunities!

For more information and a recruiter's perspective (and advice) on managing references, read How to Manage Your References to Close - NOT Kill - Opportunities.

Keep Your Messages Short

Recent research has shown that up to 30% of business email is read first on a smartphone.

This means that several big paragraphs (more than 6 lines on a smartphone screen) will look like a "wall of words" that someone in a hurry may not want to take the time read.

The first sample, requesting permission for someone to be a reference, is less than 20 words. The second sample, when the reference may be contacted by an employer, is longer. But the paragraphs are short.

BOTH messages have attachments! Be sure to add those attachments before hitting the "Send" button.

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Be VERY Diplomatic

Although you might consider the person providing the reference to be a good friend, remember that anything you put in email can come back to bite you. Stay professional.

Even if your current boss is a thug and the organization is horrible, don't share that in email, particularly when you are asking for a reference.

Simply indicate your desire to move on with your career, as expressed below in the first sample.

Time Your Request Carefully

Sometimes, you don't have much time to set things up gracefully, but the best strategy is to send these requests at least a week in advance of the job interview, if you can.

Sending during the morning on a Tuesday through Thursday is best, assuming no holidays are happening that week. Usually messages received then have the best chance of being read and responded to.

If a holiday or vacation is pending or an extreme weather condition is forecast (or has happened), wait until that time has passed.

If Your Message Isn't Answered

Don't automatically assume that an unanswered message is a rejection. Your message may have gotten caught in a spam filter somewhere or is buried in an over-crowded inbox. So, don't give up -- yet.

If you don't receive an answer to this first email, don't send another one unless you have no other options. Instead, give the person a call to ask if they received your message (give date and time you sent it) and had a chance to it.

  • If the message was not received, tell them what you were requesting and ask if they would be interested.
  • If the message was received but not read, tell them what you were requesting, and ask if they would be interested.
  • If the message was received and read, but not responded to, assume that they are not willing to be reference for you. And, do NOT pressure them to change their mind. You need good, willing, and sincere support!

If you get voicemail, ask if they have received and had a chance to read your message. Assume that the lack of response to your phone call or voicemail means that they don't want to be a reference for you.

2 Sample Email Requests for Job References

Usually, you need two email messages to effectively set up this process.

  • Requesting Permission: The first message is to get the person's approval to be a reference for you.
  • Notification of a Pending Employer Contact: If approval is received as a result of the first message, the second message is to alert the person to a pending job interview where their name and contact information will be provided, if requested by the employer. Send this message before every interview where the person's name might be shared.

The messages below are short. However, they make the points needed, and are polite and professional.

Sample 1: Request for Permission to Be a Reference

Notice that it opens with a human touch, explains the situation politely (no trashing your current employer!), and then asks for the reference, without assuming that a reference will automatically be provided. In closing, reciprocity is offered. If you wanted to warm up the relationship, close with an offer to buy a cup of coffee, glass of wine, or dinner (etc.) in the future "to catch up."

In this example, the person making the request is reaching out to a former boss to ask if he or she would provide a reference for a pending job interview.

Subject:Reference request

Dear [person's name],

We haven't been in touch for a while [if true], and I hope all is well in your world. As you know, I have been working at [name of organization] for over 3 years. Organizations change, and it is time for me to move on.

I am writing to ask if you would feel comfortable providing me with a reference for job opportunities. I am seeking a new position as a [whatever you want] with [names of target employers] and other similar organizations. As you know, this role is a continuation of what I've been doing for the past [x] years, providing [description of whatever you have been doing that is related to your target job].

Attached is a copy of my current resume, and my LinkedIn Profile [provide a link to it here] is up-to-date. If you have any questions or need any additional information, I will be happy to provide it.

If there is anything I can do for you, please do not hesitate to ask.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards,
[your name]
[your current -- or target-- job title]
[your current employer, if you have one]
[your phone number]
[your LinkedIn Profile URL]

Obviously, if you know the person very well and consider them a close friend, this message can be less formal.

Sample 2: Notification of Pending Contact by an Employer

When someone has agreed to act as a reference for you, send this message before any job interview where their name may be provided. This message may be longer than 250 words.

Subject:Reference request - [employer name and title of job]

Dear [person's name],

Great news! I have an interview scheduled with [name of employer] on [date]. I am very excited by this opportunity. I expect that they will be contacting you soon after that.

Attached is a copy of the resume I submitted for this job and also a copy of the job description for this job. I think this job is a good [or great] match for me. They are requiring [x] years of experience doing [whatever is specified that you did], and when I worked for you, I was responsible for doing [the same, similar, or related work]. In my [former or current job, as appropriate], I also [did or do the work specified], so I have the years of experience they require.

[Repeat the paragraph above several times, as appropriate. Focus each paragraph on a different job requirement that you meet and that your reference has seen you do. If possible, mention an award or big sale or other important accomplishment by you related to that work.]

I will be interviewing on [date, hopefully more than 1 week in the future], and I will give them my list of references then.

If they contact you and you have a conversation with them, I would greatly appreciate a quick email from you, with the name of the person plus the date and time, if possible. Learning if they focused their questions on any particular part of my background or seemed impressed (or concerened) about an aspect of my qualifications would be very helpful, too.

Let me know if you have any questions or need any more information. I'd be happy to talk with you any time that is convenient for you.

Thank you for support!

Best regards,
[your name]
[your current -- or target-- job title]
[your current employer, if you have one]
[your phone number]
[your LinkedIn Profile URL

Knowing if and when your references have been contacted is very helpful. Sometimes references are not contacted, but the job is still offered to you. Sometimes, when references are not contacted, that indicates that the employer is not interested.

If your references are contacted, knowing when and who contacted them helps you understand what is going on. It's alsos very helpful to know what topics were of the greatest interest to the employer.

Send a Thank You!

Without good references, chances are slim that you will get an offer! So, regardless of whether or not the employer sent you a job offer or a thanks-but-no-thanks message, send your reference a thank you note.

If you haven't heard from the employer again, send the thank you anyway, after a couple of weeks of employer silence. Let your references know that you will give them an update when (and if) you receive any information from the employer.

Stay positive about your job search and the future! Express sincere gratitude to them for their support.

More About Using Email for Job Search


About the author...

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Job-Hunt.org. Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.