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When to ask for a Reference

Power of business woman

A few years back I asked a gardener friend about the best time to plant fruit trees. His response, “Ten years ago.” And then he asked if I would like to know the second-best time. I took the bait and said, “of course.”  To which he answered, “today.”

Which brings me to the topic of this week’s column — references, testimonials and letters of recommendation. When is the best time to ask for one? When you don’t need it. And, just like planting fruit trees, the next best time is today.

Waiting until you are unemployed, underemployed or desperate for a new job is the worst time to hit up your network for a recommendation. For one thing, your confidence is often at an all-time low, which means that you may be less willing to reach out for help. Waiting until you need that letter means that your most memorable successes are likely in the rear-view mirror, making it harder for your references to accurately recall your contributions. I’ve had clients hem and haw for months before getting up the courage to ask a colleague or former boss to write a few words about them. Don’t wait until you are asked for them; have your references ready to go before you start the job hunt.

Consider these legitimate, yet often overlooked, opportunities for a recommendation:

  1. You have just finished an important project that was a great success. Your manager is thrilled with the job you have done. This is the time to ask your boss for a recommendation on LinkedIn, to recommend you for a company award, and/or to put a note in your personnel file. You should also document this achievement for your next performance appraisal and future résumé.
  2. You were recently promoted. What better time to ask a mentor to comment on your promotion or encourage your boss to write a few lines about your career advancement?
  3. You just accepted a fabulous new job. Before you leave the old job, ask trusted colleagues to reflect on the quality of your work in a LinkedIn recommendation. Do the same for them. Ask your mentor and/or other company movers and shakers for a letter of recommendation. Even though you have already landed the job and don’t need it, it might come in handy in the future. Doing it now saves having to track the person down later when his memory is not as sharp or motivation as strong.
  4. You completed work for a high-profile client who is very pleased. Tell him how much it would mean to you if he sent a quick email to your boss (and copied you) explaining how you added value.

Consider asking individuals from all levels of the organization to comment on their experience working with you. Doing so will provide a more robust snapshot of you as a professional and elevate your credibility.

It is important to realize that once you leave some companies put the kibosh on providing references that include anything more than dates of employment and job titles. Sharing so little information can give the erroneous impression that you left under less-than-ideal circumstances. Having letters of recommendation that attest to your achievements will counter this notion, especially when they include contact information.