How to get a reference from a previous employer (with tips)
Updated 28 February 2023
When you apply for a new job, it's common for your potential employers to request references from your previous place of work. What your former employers say about you can have a significant impact on whether you're offered the job. Learning how to obtain a satisfactory reference from a previous employer can improve your chances of securing a new job. In this article, we look at why you need a reference, explain who to ask for a reference, discuss what referees can say and provide some steps for how to ask your former employer for a reference.
Why do you need a reference from a previous employer?
Employment references serve a dual purpose. They can verify what you've stated in your application, such as your employment with a company, the position you held and the dates of your employment. Moreover, a reference enables potential employers to get a better sense of your professional abilities, work ethic and overall character.
Who to ask for a reference
Unless you need a reference from a specific person, it's best to choose someone that's in a more senior position than you at your most recent job. Ideally, they know you well enough to attest to your skills and abilities and can speak positively about your character. Common referees include:
a human resources representative
a supervisor or someone else you reported to
a more senior colleague
What can referees say in a reference?
When someone requests a reference, employers and prospective referees have a few options, including:
Say nothing: Unless it's stated in your contract, a regulatory requirement or you have a written agreement to give you a reference, your employer is within their rights to decline your reference request.
Provide basic information: Some employers may agree to be a referee but to provide only a simple reference that confirms basic facts, such as your dates of employment, position and salary.
Give a more detailed reference: Employers may also choose to share their opinion on your skills and performance, alongside other traits like your attendance record and attitude at work, as long as their comments are fair and accurate.
What can't referees say in a reference?
There are some things that a referee can't say about you in an employment reference. These include:
mentioning you were the subject of an investigation in your previous employment that resulted in clearing you of any wrongdoing
disclosing any spent convictions and mentioning any unspent convictions that aren't relevant to the role to which you applied
When to ask for a reference
If a job application requires you to provide the name and contact details of a reference, it's best to ask your previous employer if they're happy to be your reference before you submit your application. This way, you can be sure that they're willing and prepared to speak about your skills and experience. It also allows you to confirm that you have their up-to-date, preferred contact details.
If you're asking someone to provide you with a reference letter, ask them as early as possible. This way, they have time to consider your request and write a letter that does justice to your skills and achievements. If the first person you ask declines, asking early also gives you time to find another reference.
Asking your previous employer for a reference
There's no set way to ask your previous employer for a reference. If you're on good terms with your former boss or chosen referee, you can ask them verbally to provide a reference for you. Alternatively, you can put your request in writing.
It's worth checking that your former employer has a policy in place regarding reference requests. If they do, ensure you follow it. In most cases, it's acceptable to send a reference request by email, but some referees may prefer a physical letter. Having your request in writing also gives you a record of your request and their response.
Tips for requesting a reference
There are some things you can do to increase your chances of getting a positive reference from your previous role, including:
Briefly explain why you chose them to give you a reference. This shows that you value their opinion and that you believe they're the best person to speak about your skills and experience.
Be polite and considerate of their time. When seeking a reference, you're likely to ask someone in a senior position to take time out of their day to do something for you, so let them know that you appreciate it.
Remind them of your accomplishments. A quick reminder of your successes during your time at the company can jog their memory and help them write a positive reference.
Make it as easy as possible for them. Give them all the information they need, such as your current contact details and a reference template if you're using one.
Follow up on your reference request. If you don't hear back from them within a reasonable timeframe, follow up with a gentle reminder.
How to write a reference request email in 10 steps
Follow these 10 steps to write your reference request email:
If you're printing and posting your reference request email, start with the address of your former employer in the top left-hand corner followed by the date. Alternatively, if you're emailing your request, there's no need for this information.
Write a salutation, such as 'Dear' followed by your prospective referee's surname, for example, 'Dear Mr Smith'. If you're on friendly terms or the workplace was informal, you can use their first name.
In the opening paragraph, explain why you're writing and introduce yourself. For example, you can say: I'm writing to ask whether you'd be willing to give me a reference. I was a customer service manager from January 2018 until March 2020.
You might also want to add something positive about your time at the company or when you worked with the individual you're using as a reference. For example, you might say: During my time at ABC Company, I introduced a new customer service training programme that improved customer satisfaction levels by 15%.
In the next paragraph, explain what kind of reference you need. For instance, you can say: I'm applying for the position of Customer Service Manager with XYZ Corporation and a favourable letter of reference from you would greatly increase my chances of success.
If there's a timeframe for when you need the reference, mention this in your letter. For example, consider mentioning something like: The deadline for applications is 31 May. If you're willing to write a reference for me, I'd need it by 30 May at the latest.
Next, offer to provide additional information or assist them in any way they need. For instance, you might say: If you require any further information from me, don't hesitate to get in touch and please let me know if there's anything I can do to assist you.
Thank the person by including a note that expresses your gratitude, such as: Thank you for considering my request and I hope to hear from you soon.
Then, close the letter by using an appropriate word or phrase, such as 'Sincerely' or 'Kind regards'. You can then follow this with your name and, for hard copies, your signature underneath.
Finally, check your letter for spelling and grammatical errors and then send it to the recipient. If you're sending a hard copy, consider sending it via recorded post.
Common concerns about requesting a reference
Some common concerns when asking for a reference include the following:
'I'm worried they might refuse'.
If you have good reason to believe this, consider preparing to approach alternate referees or ask for a reference from someone else. Many people decline to be a reference for several reasons, so it's not necessarily personal. If you predict a refusal, it's even more critical to ask early.
'I didn't leave my last job on good terms'.
If you didn't leave your previous job amicably, your former employer may still be willing to provide a reference. They're allowed to give a 'bad' reference so it's worth considering whether it's worth the risk. Another option is to get a reference from someone who doesn't hold any ill feelings towards you.
'My previous employer dismissed me'.
It can still be possible to get a reference if your previous employer dismissed you. Your former employer can disclose your dismissal in a reference and the reasons for this. Due to this, in some cases, it's better to ask a senior colleague or manager who wasn't involved in your dismissal.
'My referee won't have much to say about me'.
If you're concerned that your referee may not have much to say about you, consider providing them with a bullet point list of your skills and experience. It can also help to tell them about the position you're applying for and how your skills and experience match this role. You can also prepare your referee by suggesting what they can say about anything specific that might come up.
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