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Reference letters: How to get one

A former associate recently emailed and requested a reference letter from me.

I like helping former coworkers, they are the best source for job and sales leads.

Here is how his request for a reference letter went:


Hope you are good. Say, I am trying to get a new job at ABC and need a reference letter. Would you be so kind to put something together for me? You know, that I worked for you and what sort of job I did. It would be a big help.


I did not respond to his request for a reference letter and have not yet.
Why? Because I am a jerk?

First, how long has it been since we worked together? Spoke last? Seen each other?

What have you been doing since? Been in prison? Run a Ponzi scheme? Been fired numerous times?

How good of a job did you really do when we last worked together? Be honest.

Here is a better way to get a reference letter from a former employer.

First, pick a person you actually knew - not the supervisor listed on an organization chart you saw once.

Next, phone them. Better yet, phone them and arrange a meeting. Lunch is good. Mexican sounds good to me this week.

When you speak, ask them how they are doing. Ask if they recall working together.

Tell them truthfully what you want from them - "Bob, thank you for your time. I am back out looking at a new position and could really use your help. Do you think I could include you as a reference for my next position?".

(Notice - you are not asking for a reference letter, just a reference!).

Next, tell your contact exactly what you have been doing since you both last worked together. Where you have worked, what you have done - tie in how important your experience the gained while working together was to what you have done.

That's right, butter up that contact good.

Remember, email has a purpose and a place. Asking for something, (money, references, a job) is not the place to use email. You have to do it in person or as close to it as possible.

If your contact agrees to write you a reference letter, ask as nicely as possible for an expected date to receive the letter. "Say Bob, I know you are busy. I would not expect that letter until next Tuesday or Wednesday if that helps" is a good way to state your thoughts.

Once you receive the reference letter, "THANK YOUR CONTACT" - most people don't do this. They are too busy trying to get a job to remember a simple thank you.

Finally, if you can ever do so, return the favor by offering to write a reference letter in turn or any other request your contact may make.

Please save this blog entry for your references!
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