Professional recommendations can be one of the final hurdles to landing a job offer, so it’s important to find the right people.

But who do you ask? And what do you say?

Executive Brief

  • Need a professional reference?
  • Find sources that can vouch for your skills and work ethic
  • Give details about the position
  • Note what skills and experience you would like highlighted
  • Always ask permission before name-dropping

  • “You want to ask someone who knows your work well and can also vouch for your work ethic, not just your performance, and who you are as an individual in the workplace,” said Amy Cooper Hakim, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert. After all, someone can have the perfect resume, but not be particularly motivated or pleasant to work with.

    Asking the right person

    You obviously want to start with someone who will have positive things to say about you, but you’re not always sure how someone really feels. It’s fine to simply ask references directly if they are ok with putting in a good word for you.

    “Tell them the position you are applying for and ask if they are comfortable giving a positive recommendation,” said Cooper Hakim.

    It can also help to share your resume with specific parts highlighted that you would like emphasized, along with details about the position.

    If you don’t want the news of your search spreading to your current employer, former supervisors or colleagues who have left the company can serve as good sources.

    Finding a reference can be especially hard if you’ve been with the same employer for a long time. In some cases, you might have a current co-worker you can turn to.

    “If you have a good and trusted colleague internally that is a peer and might be able to speak to your performance, that is not uncommon,” said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half.

    Stay in touch with people you think you might want to use as a reference throughout your career, he added.

    If you’re making progress with your job hunt, always give your references a heads up that someone might be reaching out to them.

    The rules of name-dropping

    Who you know is a big part of getting your foot in the door for an interview, but always ask for permission before using someone’s name.

    Name-dropping without checking in with the person first can backfire. Hiring managers tend to follow up with employees who are referenced in a note or interview, and if that person doesn’t know you or doesn’t speak favorably of your skills, that can be a turn off to an employer.

    “It decreases your credibility as a candidate,” said McDonald.

    You also don’t know if the person is in good standing with the company, so mentioning the name could cast you in an unfavorable light.

    If you don’t know anyone who works there, you can reference news and media mentions about the company, suggested Cooper Hakim. For instance, you can mention a recent interview with the CEO in an outreach email or interview and how the comments resonated with you.

    How to say no

    If someone is asking you to give a reference, keep in mind that your own credibility is on the line, so don’t feel pressured to say yes to every request.

    Be honest with the person, but keep it short and simple.

    “You need to be direct and say you don’t feel like you are capable of providing a positive recommendation,” said Cooper Hakim.

    If the person continues to put pressure on you, stick with it and say you don’t know his or her work well enough and aren’t comfortable giving a recommendation.

    Some companies have rules about serving as a reference, so check your company policy before agreeing to it.