How to ask for a reference letter [with sample]

Workforce Management
JC Cornell

By JC Cornell
January 27, 2021

June 6, 2024

0 min read

Reference letters are not a thing of the past. On occasion, you may even need to request a written reference letter to keep on file.

While this is not common practice, it is bound to happen at some stage in your career.

Why you should ask for a reference letter 

For hiring managers, recruiters and HR teams, completing reference checks by phone is second nature.

You know what to ask and how to probe deeper. You've locked down your listening skills and know not to make assumptions about what a reference will say in advance.

However, a reference letter is an entirely different situation.

Reference letters tend to be perfectly crafted and can be utterly polite to the point of being deprived of character.

They can allow references too long to think about their answers, and you often don't get a straightforward reply. That said, there are huge benefits to requesting a reference letter.

These letters offer a holistic perspective on the candidate's skills, work ethic, and character from individuals who have firsthand experience working with them. They can highlight specific accomplishments, attest to the candidate's reliability, and provide context for their qualifications beyond what may be evident from a resume or interview alone.

Reference letters serve as a testament to a candidate's abilities and suitability for a role, helping hiring professionals make more informed decisions and potentially saving time and resources in the hiring process.

Having a written reference also gives you physical documentation that you can refer back to, whereas this isn't the case when you request a reference over the phone. 

Keep these five tips in mind when requesting a reference letter, and it will be much easier to do in the future: 

  1. Make sure your references are expecting your request
  2. Details to include in a reference letter 
  3. Questions to ask when requesting a reference letter
  4. Sample reference letter 
  5. What to remember when asking for a reference letter 

1. Make sure your references are expecting the request 

Before you ask for a reference letter, you need to make sure the recipients know it's coming.

This allows the reference to prepare a thoughtful and comprehensive letter that accurately reflects the candidate's qualifications and strengths. Being informed gives them the opportunity to recall specific examples or achievements that may be relevant to the position.

This awareness also empowers the reference to discuss any concerns or limitations they may have in providing a recommendation, enabling open and transparent communication between the reference and the hiring manager.

More importantly, it means they are aware of the deadline to get the reference letter back to you. This will ensure you receive the reference letter in a timely manner, avoiding delays in the hiring process.


2. Details to include in a reference letter request 

Whether you are sending an email or an actual letter, there are a few items you will want to include in your request.

Make sure that your request includes all your details. This includes your name, position, company name, and contact number. They all provide legitimacy to your request.

If you ask for a reference letter by post, don't forget to include the date the letter was sent and your return postal address. Just remember there is no guarantee your letter will get there or back. So think twice before trusting any unreliable postal services.

Finally, make sure to state why you are looking for a reference letter. Providing the "why" allows the reference to ensure the information they give you is in the right context.

3. Questions to ask when requesting a reference letter

a man working on a reference letter on a laptop 

You need to ask reference questions that factor in both industry standards and technical specifications that the position may entail.

Start with straightforward introductory questions before asking more open-ended substantial ones. Any questions you ask should establish the candidates' work history, skills, potential cultural fit, and ability to do the role you are considering them for.

Key questions you should ask when requesting a reference letter include:

  • Can you provide an overview of the candidate's job responsibilities and performance during their time with your organisation?
  • What are the candidates key strengths and areas of expertise?
  • How does the candidate approach problem-solving and handle challenges in the workplace?
  • Can you tell me about the candidate's communication skills, both verbal and written?
  • Please provide details of an occasion when the candidate demonstrated teamwork and collaboration with colleagues or clients?

These questions help you gain a comprehensive understanding of the candidate's professional abilities and suitability for the role you're considering them for. 

Always make sure you aren't asking inappropriate questions that infringe on employment standards.

4. Sample reference letter 

If you have never written a request for a reference letter, you might not know where to start. This sample below is a great place. Feel free to change up the details to match your tone of voice, and ensure the details are correct.

You want to give enough information to get great replies that paint a picture of the employee you are considering hiring.

RE: Reference for Jane Smith

Dear Dave Jones,

Jane Smith has applied for a position with ABC Company as a Project Engineer. She has listed you as a reference for the time she worked at DEF Company. We are interested in getting more details about her time working with you. We would appreciate if you can answer the following questions to the best of your ability. The information you provide will help us decide whether we would like to hire her.

Please be aware that any information you provide is strictly confidential. Jane has signed a release authorising you to provide the information requested below. If you have any questions, please contact me on my number, or email, listed below.

In advance, thank you for taking the time to complete this reference letter for Jane. As there is a role we are currently considering Jane for, we would really appreciate a reply by 1 March at the latest.

What dates did she work at DEF Company and what was her position when you worked together?

In what capacity did you know or work with her? How long did you work together?

What were her main responsibilities and duties in her role?

Any areas of strength that will help her excel or areas of weakness that might influence her job perform?

Tell me about her most significant accomplishment while working with you?

Why did she leave her role with DEF Company?

Is there anything else you would like me to know about her?

Lastly, company policies aside, would you rehire her if you had the opportunity again?

Simon Simpson, General Manager, ABC Company
+1 000 000 0000 

5. Tips to remember when you ask for a reference letter 

Here are some top tips to bear in mind when asking for a reference letter:

  1. Provide clear guidance: Clearly communicate to the reference what specific aspects of the candidate's qualifications or experiences you would like them to address in the letter. This can include key skills, achievements, or characteristics relevant to the position.

  2. Offer sufficient time: Give the reference ample time to craft a thoughtful and well-written letter. Requesting a reference letter with short notice can put unnecessary pressure on the reference and may result in a rushed or incomplete recommendation. Remember - writing this letter will take time and they are busy. 

  3. Maintain professionalism: When reaching out to request a reference letter, maintain a professional tone and provide all necessary details, such as the deadline for submission and preferred format (e.g., email attachment, online form). Respect the reference's time and workload by being concise in your request.

  4. Follow up politely: If the reference has agreed to provide a letter but has not done so by the agreed-upon deadline, follow up politely to inquire about the status. Express gratitude for their assistance and offer any additional information or clarification they may need to complete the letter.

  5. Express gratitude: Once you receive the reference letter, express sincere appreciation to the reference for their time and support. A thank-you email or note acknowledges their effort and strengthens the professional relationship for potential future collaborations.

By following these tips, you can ensure a smooth and respectful process when requesting reference letters from colleagues or contacts.

Airswift understands why reference letters are important

We know how essential references are. The information we gather during reference checks helps our clients make informed hiring decisions.

This is why we ensure to get as many details as possible. We love what we do and would love to help with your next hire.

Share the knowledge

Latest Jobs

S&F Airswift newsletter form graphic

Fast-track your STEM career