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Career Advice

How to Ask Your Boss for a Personal Reference Letter

asking for reference letter

What could be more awkward than needing to ask your current boss for a personal reference letter to help you land a new job? Of course, the level of awkwardness felt will depend on your particular circumstances. For example, if your current employer is closing down the company and making everyone redundant, then you have a perfectly good excuse to approach your boss for a recommendation to help with your professional references.

However, the landscape could be very different if you purposefully want to jump ship to go and work for a direct competitor. Your current boss may be shocked and surprised by your request for a reference, so if this is your situation, you will need to handle your approach with great tact and delicacy.

What is a professional reference?

When you have been job searching for a while and you have managed to narrow down the companies that interest you and you want to work for, you will then have to go through the normal motions of applying for any vacancies that catch your eye. You can do this by being prepared with an up to date resume and a good cover letter that you have taken the time to personalize to each individual job you are applying for.

Should you then go on to land yourself a very coveted job interview, what could be the last obstacle between you and the job of your dream will be your professional references.

Choose your timing well

Asking your boss for some professional references to help you find a new job even before you have started looking at the job market may not be the best idea. Asking too soon can put both you and your current boss in a very uncomfortable position.

Approaching your boss too soon will let your boss know that you are unhappy in your work. They may react to this in one of three ways:

  • They will look at ways to terminate your employment
  • They will make your working life as difficult as possible
  • They will bend over backward to help

If your boss decides to get rid of you as soon as possible, this could leave you high and dry without a job or anywhere else to go. Or knowing that you are intent on leaving the company, they will make your working day as uncomfortable as possible by giving you the most difficult or horrible work tasks or impossible deadlines to meet.

However, if your boss doesn’t like a conflict in the workplace, they may surprise you and decide that the easiest way out of this situation is to help you to leave as soon as possible. They may choose to help speed things up as much as possible by encouraging your work search efforts, allowing you time off for job interviews and supplying you with outstanding personal references.

Whichever approach they take will very much depend on their personality and what your working relationship is like with them.

Regardless of how they react, you need to ensure that you give both of you enough time to discuss your situation so that both sides can get across their point of view and concerns. You will need more than a quick five-minute conversation in passing in a work corridor.

Make sure you book yourself in with your boss for a private one-to-one meeting with enough time to discuss the finer points of why you want to leave and how you can both reach a working compromise that makes the remainder of your working weeks or months with the company as comfortable as possible for the both of you.

When is it a good time to ask for a personal reference?

It can be a very touchy subject to ask your boss for a personal reference or a letter of recommendation that you intend to use to secure another job. While most bosses wouldn’t have an issue to write you a personal reference if you have a good relationship with them and you were looking for help with securing a volunteering position, for example, it is important that you make them aware of your intent behind your request.

Never try to mislead your boss into writing a personal reference without them knowing your intent for using it.

To be fair to your boss you need to clarify what context the letter would be written for, and make sure that you give them enough time to prepare and write the letter. Springing your request on them just a couple of days before you need to submit the letter to your potential new employer may result in a sharp refusal.

Should your boss turn down your request for a personal reference it may not be because they don’t want to write you one, it may be a bad time for you to have asked. They may be facing a very tight deadline to deliver some work or may be in the middle of sorting out another pressing work-related issue or crisis.

You need to make your request for a personal reference at a time of relative calm in the office where your boss isn’t otherwise engaged in fighting fires or under pressure to deliver on quarterly reports and figures etc.

If you are in the position at work where you know that you will want to leave the company within the next six months to a year, then approach your boss with your request with as much notice as you feel is workable. By giving your boss some notice, they will have the time available to be able to sit and reflect back on your performance so that they can draw up an honest review for your letter.

Asking for a personal reference with plenty of notice also gives your boss the opportunity to look at sorting out a suitable replacement for you without having to rush the recruitment process.

How do I ask my boss for a personal reference letter?

Asking your boss for a personal reference letter is one thing, but knowing exactly how to approach them and how to phrase your request is another thing entirely.

When you have your one-to-one appointment secured, you will need to make your request as direct and as clear as possible. However, you need to make sure that your tone of voice and posture is as calm and as collective as you can muster.

You don’t need to be vague or too subtle about your request. Speak clearly and calmly with confidence. You can explain the reason why you want a personal reference letter and a rough timeline for when you will need the letter to be in hand.

Flattery and appreciation usually work well here so you can say something like:

“I am applying for a job with XYZ and know that a personal reference letter from you will carry a lot of weight in helping me to secure the role. Since you have been my manager for a long while now, you are in a good position to be able to highlight my strengths and skills so I would appreciate it greatly if you would write a letter of recommendation for me”.

Paint the company in a positive light

Try to come across as positive as possible with your request. While your boss may be surprised or even a little disappointed or hurt to discover that you want to leave the company, if you frame your request in a positive light that reflects well on the company, then your request will not be seen as a negative action.

Your boss may ask you why you want to leave, so the last thing you want to do here is to moan about your job or highlight any negative issues you have with the company. Try not to go down the path where your talk turns into a complaining session. Instead, keep the conversation focused on how much you have grown while you have been in your role.

Reinforce that you have appreciated your time with the company, have enjoyed your time there and have learned a lot of valuable skills to take forward with you. Make it clear that your experience with the company has done a lot to help you improve your career prospects and that your application to XYZ is a step to advance your career path in the right direction further.

To help your boss pen a positive personal reference letter that is going to help you in securing your next job, take the opportunity to remind them of all your good work and achievements.

Make some notes about specific projects or outcomes that were particularly successful that you had a major hand in. Refer to your notes to help remind your boss of your many achievements that are worth talking about in your letter.

Your boss may even ask you to prepare some notes, facts and figures that highlight your performance that they can include in your letter, so make sure you have prepared this in advance. You can take your report into your meeting for you to refer to and then leave a copy with them at the end of your meeting.

Conclusion

While it is a tricky subject to broach with your boss, asking them for a personal reference need not be as painful or awkward as you first think.

Be thoughtful, honest and positive with your request and your boss should have no reason not to deliver you with an outstanding personal reference letter to help boost your next job chances.

Good luck with your next career move! Remember that once you land your new job, you will need to write a good resignation letter that doesn’t burn any bridges and keeps your communication lines open with your old contacts.

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