An employment reference letter is a personal testimonial from a former supervisor or other individual who has firsthand knowledge of your work performance. When you're looking for a new job, this type of letter can help you stand out from other applicants.
Who to Ask
If a potential employer requests -or is willing to look at- a letter of reference, it's in your best interest that the document contain information specific to how you can be expected to perform on the job. The ideal reference document is written by someone you worked with closely who has a positive impression of you. It's a good idea to ask a former boss or coworker you had a good relationship with to write a letter for you.
Teachers and college professors can also be good resources for reference letters. Even though your previous instructors didn't work with you in an actual job setting, there's a good chance that they have a solid understanding of your work ethic, ambitions, and the personality traits you're likely to exhibit in the workplace.
When to Request
When Working Out a Notice
It's a good idea to ask for general letters of reference at the time you leave a job, assuming you are leaving on good terms and a company representative is willing to write a positive letter about your performance. If you get a letter at the time you terminate employment, the person who you're asking to write the document will have a clear memory of your work performance. Getting one or more reference letters at the time you separate from employment means that you'll have the document ready when you start applying for jobs.
After Leaving Work
If you don't get an employment reference letter at the time you leave a job, you can always call back and request such a document. However, there's always a chance that the people with firsthand knowledge of your capabilities won't be working for the company after time has passed. Additionally, once you've been gone from the job for a while, even individuals who worked closely with you might not remember details of how you performed on the job. It's generally best to ask for a letter at the time you depart a position to avoid these potential issues.
Upon Completing Training
If you're planning to ask an instructor for a letter of reference, it's also best to make your request as soon as you complete the class or training program of study in which you're interacting with him or her. If you wait too long, you might not be able to locate the instructor you'd like to ask to write a letter, or he or she might not have clear memories of your performance in class.
In some cases, employment application procedures require current letters of reference on a specific form. If you apply for a job with this type of requirement, you won't be able to use general letters that you've collected when leaving previous jobs. In this situation, you'll need to seek out former employers and workplace peers to complete the necessary documentation on your behalf.
How to Request
When asking for a reference letter, it is important to be very respectful of the person you are approaching. Keep in mind that the person has a right to say no, so be sure you are requesting rather than demanding.
It's best to make personal contact when making your request. Place a phone call to the person first, then follow up via email to confirm and to provide specifics regarding where to send the letter or if you will pick it up, as well as when you need the document. Alternately, if you are asking a person that you still see regularly at work or school, make your initial request face-to-face.
Practice what you are going to say ahead of time so that you are very clear and thoughtful in your request. Consider something like this: "Sue, as you know, the primary reason I am leaving XYZ Company is to return to school full time to finish my degree. I have gained so much experience here that is sure to prove valuable long into the future. I'm hoping that you'd be willing to write a letter of reference on my behalf that I can share with potential employers when I am ready to go back to work in a few years. Can you write a brief letter that outlines how I perform in a professional environment?"
Once you have made your initial request:
- If the person you are asking declines, just thank him or her for taking the time to talk with you and ask someone else for assistance.
- When an individual agrees, say thank you and ask how you can be of assistance. In some cases, you may find that the individual wants you to give him or her ideas of what to say, which you should provide if requested.
- Provide the letter-writer specific details in writing about how the letter should be addressed - i.e., if it should be written to a specific person or if you are looking for a general "to whom it may concern" document.
Preparing for the Future
Securing a reference letter is a good way to start preparing today for your job searches of the future. Once you have a letter of reference, keep it with your resume and other important employment-related documents so that you'll be able to produce a copy any time you have an opportunity to apply or interview for a new position.