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How to Ask Someone You Haven’t Talked to in Years to be a Reference

Posted by Ashley Preuss

When we’re in job search mode we often focus on sending the perfect resume that showcases our skills and expertise, prepping for the interview process, and of course crossing our fingers till we hopefully land that Holy Grail job offer. Before any of this though, we need to get something in order that can be the determining factor in a close call between yourself and another candidate—your references.

It’s standard procedure for hiring managers and recruiters to ask for references as part of the hiring process and to make sure that you appear as the stellar candidate that you are, you need to be prepared with a list of people who will champion you by giving an informed endorsement.

What sometimes stands in our way of securing these successful references is being afraid to ask the right people. Your references should be your colleagues, supervisors, people who know what value you bring to the table and can talk about your accomplishments.

Maybe you haven’t kept in touch for years and you feel awkward about asking for someone’s help out of the blue. That’s okay. They understand what it’s like to be in job search mode and more often than not, people want to help. But you should make it as easy as possible for them. Be clear in what you’re asking them to do for you and supply them with the information they need to be a good reference.

Getting Started 

Though you probably feel most comfortable asking your family and friends to help you in times of need, these are not the people you should be listing as references in your job search. You need to reach out to your past colleagues and supervisors who can speak to your abilities and accomplishments. Maybe your hiring manager at a previous job left early on in your position or you didn’t have the best relationship with your supervisor. In this case, choose someone else at that organization that you can say knows your work the best.

Try to select individuals you’ve worked with recently, as we grow as professionals and develop our expertise and skill sets as our careers move forward. While it’s best to have recent references, there may be an exception if a particular position you held in your past is especially relevant to the job you’re currently applying for.

When making a list of your top picks consider adding backups, as many professionals have busy schedules and could potentially be traveling or unreachable when the reference process begins. 

Making Contact

The biggest misstep you can make when providing references is not telling someone that you are including them. The last thing you want is a recruiter to call and for them to be unprepared, or even worse struggle to remember who you are. You need to make contact and have permission before you start handing out emails or phone numbers.

If you feel comfortable talking with your prospective references call them up or better yet set up a time to meet in person. For many of us we may be shy or uncomfortable doing this, especially if we haven’t been in touch for quite some time, so send an email.

Your Sales Pitch

Reconnect and start your email by telling them you’re in job search mode and you want them to be a reference. You know the reasons you picked them—tell them why. Express that you remember what a great boss they were or how you learned a lot working with them. Be positive and make them feel appreciated. After all, you are asking them to do something on your behalf.

Make it clear that you value their time and promise not to throw their name around, as you’ll only share it when you really need to. Keep in mind that you’re asking for them to be a reference, not simply notifying them that they are one. Most will say yes, but be respectful of their decision if they decline. You don’t want neutral or negative references anyway, so it’s best not to push if you don’t receive the response you were hoping for.

Once They Agree

At this point they’ve agreed to serve as a reference for you but your prep work isn’t finished yet. Send them a copy of your resume and tell them what kind of jobs you’re looking for. Let them know you’ll follow up again by saying that you will notify them when you have an opportunity that you want them to be a reference for.

Preparing Your References

Now that it’s time to pull out your best references and you’ve given their information to the recruiter or hiring manager, update your reference and make sure they’re prepared to impress. Tell them about the job and share what you learned in the interview that the employer is interested in. Perhaps they spoke about teamwork during your interview, so ask your reference if they could touch on your teamwork skills or anything else that might have stood out to you that is most important for the position, but keep it brief and be mindful of their time.

Send them another copy of your resume—you’ve probably updated it by now anyway, but nonetheless make it easy for them so that they have everything they need right there.

Following Up

Make sure you thank them for providing their reference. Whether you were offered the job or not, they were involved in the process and they’ll want to know how things turned out. Share your appreciation for the reference they gave so they’ll be inclined to do so again. Even if you didn’t land a job right out of the gate your references are prepared for your next opportunity and you’re that much closer to making your goals come to fruition.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 04, 2019 10:22 pm

2 thoughts on “How to Ask Someone You Haven’t Talked to in Years to be a Reference”

  1. As far as references go, I have a few for my first 2 jobs. large companies now have a mandate that you cannot provide reference to any individual. People can lose their jobs. Companies started using services and potential employers are supposed to use them. This is especially true if there was severance and a separation. Package with the layoff.

    1. Karen you make a great point, and illustrate the potential power of the references you provide to a prospective employer. Professional references don’t have to be your previous supervisor if they’re unable to provide helpful information, though often a previous boss who has moved on or retired is a good reference and isn’t bound by the old employer’s rules. Focus on providing references who can speak to your talents and skills for the positions you’re applying for. That may also include vendors you interacted with professionally, former colleagues, fellow volunteers, and so on.

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