Now is the perfect time to assert what I believe to be the fundamental principle of 21st century job searches:
No one cares about you.
Okay, that’s probably overstating it. Most people are actually highly cooperative and willing to lend a hand (especially your potential references) but they are far more likely to do so if you make it easy for them.
Here’s what I mean: there’s a long way between asking someone “will you be my reference”, them saying “yes”, and that person actually giving you a thorough and effective endorsement when a hiring manager calls them.
Unfortunately, most job seekers just cross their fingers and hope everything in between works itself out. That’s when your reference stumbles through the phone call. “Um…yeah, John was a great guy…good kid, always did what I asked. You should hire him!”
There’s a better way. Let’s walk through a fictional example of the right way to ask someone for a reference…and actually get it.
Step #1: Choose a relevant and reliable reference
If you’re fresh out of college, don’t use your grocery store manager from three years ago as a reference for a tech startup job. The hiring manager won’t care and chances are that person moved to another store anyway. Even if not, they probably don’t remember you or won’t make your reference a priority if they do. It’s been too long.
Who should you pick? Ideally, someone who supervised you in a related setting, like your boss at a college internship. If you have no relevant professional work experience, a professor in the subject at hand is a great stand-in. These people are likely to have formed a stronger connection with you and be more inclined to help you today.
Step #2: Ask in a way that respects your reference’s time
Always remember that your reference has a plate full of tasks and to-do items that don’t involve you. Just because the reference is the biggest item on your plate doesn’t mean it’s the biggest item on theirs. Frankly, it’s probably far down the list, somewhere below “pick up the dry cleaning” and “take Suzi to soccer practice.”
Again: it’s not that they don’t care about you at all. Most bosses and mentors are happy to help. You just need to make it easy. Send them an email like this:
Hope all is well with you! I just wanted to let you know that I’m interviewing for a position at [COMPANY NAME], which is really fascinating because it calls upon some of the work we did with [PROJECT HERE] at [COLLEGE OR YOUR OLD JOB]. They need a reference from my past and you are the perfect person.
It should be nothing more than a 5-10 minute phone call on or around Tuesday of next week. If you don’t mind, I’d like to make it easy and send you a short follow-up email of what they’re looking for in this position and some things you could tell them about our history together.
Pro tip: the best emails do all the thinking for the busy recipient and allow them to simply say “yes, sounds good.”
Step #3: Coach your reference on what to say
Even a reference with your best interests at heart may not know precisely what your prospective employer is looking for. That’s your job.
When your reference says yes to your email, prepare a loose “script” for them to follow on the phone. You won’t know exactly what the hiring manager is going to ask them of course, but that’s fine. Your reference doesn’t need to repeat your words verbatim as long as they echo the important takeaways of your work history.
Here’s an example:
Thanks so much for helping me with this. I really appreciate it! So like I mentioned before, I want to give you the scoop on who this company is and what they’re looking for in this position. Don’t feel pressured to say exactly what I’m writing…just know that these are the high-level takeaways.
The company is [COMPANY NAME], based in [CITY/STATE]. They specialize in [WHATEVER THEY DO.] The position I’m applying for is Marketing Manager. Basically, I would be responsible for developing long-range marketing plans for the organization, including product positioning, pricing, strategic messaging and sales funnel creation. They want to know that I’m not just tactical (doing what people tell me) but strategic: ie, that I can use my brain to come up with innovative ideas on the fly. It would be great if you brought up [A PROJECT WHERE YOU DID THIS.]
They also want to know that I’m hardworking and diligent enough to keep pushing when projects get hard. Talk about the time I kept the entire team late for a week in a row to finish our email campaign before the big launch.
Otherwise, you can improvise: anything you care to say about my personality or work ethic or the fact that I’m a good guy is fine. Thanks again [NAME], this really means alot to me and I appreciate you working it into your schedule.
BAM! Now you don’t just have a “yes, I’ll do it.” You have something much better: the knowledge that your reference knows exactly what to say to make you look great!