Requesting a Recommendation or Referral

What are Recommendations and Referrals?

Most employers ask job applicants to provide a list of references, or people who can recommend the applicant as an employee. Employers interested in hiring an applicant typically will contact up to three of a candidate's references. In some cases, employers will ask job applicants to submit several letters of recommendation with their résumés. Such recommendations, whether given verbally or in writing, are expected to provide information about the abilities, achievements, and personal characteristics that make the applicant a good fit for the job. Recommendations can be sought from former supervisors, higher-ranking coworkers, business clients, and even former teachers or professors.

Requesting a Recommendation or Referral

A job referral is the practice of recommending someone for a specific job. For example, a chef at a new restaurant may refer a cook with whom the chef worked at a previous establishment to the general manager of the new restaurant. The referral, made by someone the general manager trusts, can save valuable time in recruiting a cook. Referrals might also come from a person affiliated with the company, such as a supplier or a trusted customer. As with recommendations, referrals should describe how a person's qualifications would benefit the company doing the hiring.

Why Are Recommendations and Referrals So Important?

Recommendations and referrals have always been important tools for job seekers, particularly when an employer is satisfied with an applicant's initial screening or interview and needs more background information on the candidate from a third party. With the wealth of information available online about job applicants and the ease with which people can apply for jobs online, personal referrals have become an increasingly important way for human-resources personnel to evaluate potential employees.

Before the rise of online job searching, employers primarily advertised open positions through newspapers and trade publications, college placement offices, or employment agencies. The pool of job applicants that these advertisements reached was therefore largely restricted by geographical location, profession, or word-of-mouth. Job postings on the Internet, however, are viewed by a larger group of job seekers of all abilities and in all locations. Referrals can therefore be highly attractive to an employer because they can save significant time that would otherwise be needed to sift through the many résumés and applications that are submitted online.

Some critics believe that relying too much on referrals to fill job openings can be discriminatory. A study conducted by the Federal Reserve found a high percentage of employees who gave referrals chose individuals of their own racial or ethnic background and gender. This practice has also made it difficult for the long-term unemployed, with increasingly weak professional networks, to reenter the workforce. Furthermore, it can be detrimental to employers because it may limit growth-enhancing diversity in the ranks.

Whom Should I Ask for a Recommendation?

Requesting a Recommendation or Referral

Make thoughtful choices when asking people for a recommendation. You should approach people you know well and who will provide potential employers with relevant and complimentary details about your work history and character. You should also choose people who are likely to respond to an employer's queries in a timely manner. If a hiring manager is unable to contact a reference, your prospects for being hired may be jeopardized.

Career experts suggest that when you leave a job and are on good terms with your employer that you ask for a letter of recommendation from your supervisors, mentors, or other senior employees with whom you have worked closely. These letters can be used when applying for a new position and have the added benefit of already being on hand. However, you need to make certain that contact information remains up to date, especially for any of your references who change jobs. Staying in regular contact with past coworkers and supervisors is advantageous when you are hunting for a job, in part because it increases the likelihood that your contacts will refer you for a job position that they learn about through their own network of contacts.

The higher the person interviewing you is, the more likely it is that your references will be contacted.

The higher the person interviewing you is, the more likely it is that your references will be contacted. ILLUSTRATION BY LUMINA DATAMATICS LTD. © 2015 CENGAGE LEARNING®. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General Evaluation and Inspections Division. “Department-Wide Data Request Results,” Reference Checking in the Department of Justice, January 2013, 35.

In addition to former supervisors and coworkers, you can reach out to others for possible job recommendations and referrals. If you are a recent college graduate, you can request a reference from professors or academic advisers who are familiar with their work. In addition, if you have developed pertinent skills by volunteering in community organizations, you can ask for a recommendation from senior members of the organization.

How Should I Ask for a Recommendation?

Always get permission to use someone as a reference before providing contact information to a prospective employer. You can contact references via mail, e-mail, or phone. Professional networking sites, such as the LinkedIn website ( ), can also be used to obtain references and recommendations. A more traditional way to ask for a recommendation is to provide a copy of your résumé, a cover letter, and a description of the job for which you are applying to the person from whom you seek a recommendation. References who are confident in your abilities might be happy to sign a letter of recommendation that you have written yourself. Samples and tips for writing letters of recommendation are available on many career-building websites.

It is a good idea to discuss with a potential reference the type of information you would like to highlight to a prospective employer. However, make certain that the people you contact for serving as a potential reference are willing to offer sincere endorsements. It is better to have a glowing reference from a close coworker than tepid praise from a vice president who may be unfamiliar with your abilities.

Whom Should I Ask for a Referral?


Once your professional network is in place, you can mine it for contacts who work at companies that you may be considering. It is best to choose people who are familiar enough with your work to give you an enthusiastic endorsement. Selecting someone who is not sufficiently familiar with your abilities may result in a lukewarm referral, which will not necessarily be beneficial. Some experts recommend that you only ask for referrals when a company posts a job opening, rather than having one of your contacts circulate your résumé to hiring managers in case something opens up. According to this philosophy, it is best to ask for favors when your contacts are most able to help.

When deciding whom to ask for a referral, remember that people may agree to help you but actually have little appreciation of your abilities. For instance, some companies offer financial incentives to employees for providing referrals. This situation can be mutually beneficial, but you will want anyone who refers you to be able to present convincing reasons you would be a good hire. One approach that may help you is to treat your contact to coffee or lunch so that you can discuss your qualifications.

How Do Referrals Work?

A job referral can work in several ways. Your contact may give you the name of the hiring manager for the job in question and permission to mention the referral in your cover letter. If this is the case, you should lead off your letter with the recommendation, mentioning the person by name and describing your relationship. You should follow up by phone or e-mail if you do not receive an acknowledgment that your materials were received.

What Should I Do After My Interview?

Follow up any interview or meeting with thank-you notes to the hiring manager, your prospective supervisor, and any others who are involved in the interviewing process. A brief, professional note sent by e-mail is usually a good bet. There is considerable variance between companies for how long it takes for you to be contacted regarding the job. It is permissible to follow up after a week, or according to whatever time frame was discussed during the interview.

Requesting a Recommendation or Referral

You should also take the time to send a thank-you note to the person who gave you the referral. This courtesy is important even if you do not get the job. You might also consider extending an offer to reciprocate with a referral for this person in the future if you are in the position to do so.

What If I Don't Know Anyone to Give Me a Recommendation or Referral?

If you are new to the job market or returning after a period of unemployment, you may not have professional contacts to draw upon for recommendations and job referrals. You can remedy this situation by building a professional network. A good first step is to set up a LinkedIn account, which will allow you to post your résumé online and to connect with friends and business acquaintances.

If you are currently employed in the field in which you want to work, cultivate relationships with your coworkers. One good strategy for doing this is to learn about other employees’ jobs by helping them out when you can. Also, look into joining professional or trade organizations in your field so that you can meet your counterparts at other companies. People in senior positions in your company may be willing to devote some time to mentoring newer employees. You can often expand your circle of contacts through these relationships.