Etiquettes for Requesting References

As an international graduate student, I regularly asked my professors for references for a variety of reasons, including job applications, scholarships, travel awards, study permit renewal, and so on. They were all gracious in obliging my request and providing excellent references, always.  Sometime in 2011, while wrapping up my doctoral program, my advisor asked if had seen the advert for two academic positions at the University of Calgary. After confirming my interest in applying for the role, she asked if I have given some thoughts about the potential referees I intend to list on my application. I quickly blurted out a few names of my profs who have previously provided me references. 

“Have you formally spoken to them if they will be available and willing to give you good references? It’s a busy time of the year with grant preparations and teaching duties. It’s important to confirm if they are all available to provide you the reference in a timely manner.” 

That day, I realized that I have, unconsciously, taken my referees for granted, not thinking through how much my request may disrupt or inconvenience them. Since that day, I became more intentional and conscious about how I deal with my referees. Here are some important etiquettes when sking for references as you as gun for that new professional role, award, and/or academic pursuit.

1. Be courteous enough to formally request for a reference:

Formally asking for a potential’s referee’s availability and willingness to provide a good first step. Some referees may be willing but not available to provide the reference in a timely manner. Others may be available but not confident that they can give your stellar references, perhaps based on their perception of your work with them, or lack of familiarity with how your career has progressed. Either way, reaching out to your potential referees before listing them on your application is not only a professional courtesy, but a way to confirm their willingness and availability to provide the reference in a timely manner. The last thing you want is to have someone give you a bad reference or send an unprepared, poor written reference for you. Consider reaching out to your potential referees in person, by email, via phone, or via virtual meeting to confirm before listing them on your applications. 

2. Provide the necessary background information

Finding folks who are willing and available to give you good references is great, but without the right background information about the position(s) you are applying for, the referees may not be able to tailor their writing/interview to support your fit for the position. Employers and adjudication committees often request additional information from references to assess the fit between your professional skills /experiences with the required competences for the role. Provide your potential referees with all the necessary information they need to gauge the fit to help them provide the best reference. These might include an updated version of your resume/CV, details about the position/award, your rationale for applying for the role/award, some other background information about the company/award, etc.  If there are areas of concern or gaps in your with your previous/current professional work, be transparent in sharing the details with them. Keeping your references in the dark about career interruptions, professional roles  or academic pursuits that didn’t work out (e.g., being let go by the previous employer or failing a course), may make you appear not trustworthy, ultimately constituting a breach of trust.

3. Be considerate!

Often, one can easily assume that the process of providing either written or oral references is easy and straight forward to the referee. Having been on the other side of the desk too, I can attest to the fact that it takes time and considerable effort to provide an excellent reference. Be be considerate of your referee’s time and commitment to supporting your application. For example, you may want to consider giving them a heads up early in the application process. Depending on how busy your referees are, asking for references with a week-long turn-around time might not be realistic. Ask them about how you can make the process of preparing the reference(s) easier.  Gentle reminders without appearing too pushy will also help.

4. Follow up with a thank you

Once the references are submitted, be intentional in expressing your appreciation to your referees for taking the time to support your professional or academic pursuit. For example, consider sending a thank you note to your referees, giving some sort of gift card, or exploring opportunity to pay back the kindness often goes a long way. 

5. Keep them updated about your progress:

One of the common mistakes I have seen many applicants make is to request references from colleagues, teachers, or superiors who have not been kept abreast of your career/academic progress. Asking for reference from someone that last gave you a reference five years ago and with whom you have not maintained any contact is awkward. While they may be polite and gracious enough to agree to serve as a reference, they might not take you seriously. Keep your references updated with the successes and failures of your job or academic pursuits. It becomes easier to ask for reference for another job if they are regularly updated about your progress. Finally, don’t make the relationships about what you could get from them. Be intentional in forging healthy and good relationships. For example, you could periodically check in on them, not just when you need help with references! Be intentional in forging short-term and long-term relationships with them, it’s the basis for building a lasting professional credibility.