Bullish Q&A: If Your Boss Thinks You’re Awesome, When Do You Ask for a Reference?

Dear Jen,

At the moment I don’t have any real need for references, because I’m not applying for anything in particular. I’m busy enough working on my business and freelance work.

I do have a 5 year plan in motion though, one that involves my eventually getting something more akin to a Real Job. Even if I don’t go in for the Real Job, at some point I assume I will need references for something else, like if I decide to go to grad school or want to work with kids or something.

Finding people to write me references isn’t the problem. Nearly every boss I’ve ever worked for has had a lot of praise for me. I’ve always just kind of assumed that when something came up where I needed a reference I’d ask the proper folks to write it.

But that doesn’t quite make sense to me, and boils down to this: do I wait to ask someone for a reference when I’m actually applying for something specific 3-5 years from now, or does it make more sense to ask them to write it now, when I’m fresh in their minds and they’ve got all the time in the world to work on it?

A couple weeks ago one of my past bosses had a heart attack. Obviously, at first my concerns were for his health and safety. But once it became clear that he was going to pull through and will hopefully be okay, I started to think with a little more urgency about the people who I’m counting on to help me with my career down the road.

Should I lean towards the latter option, and ask for those reference letters now? (Obviously not from the boss I mentioned — I will clearly wait until he’s back in good health.) Also, if they write the letter now but I’m presenting it to someone a few years from now, isn’t that kind of weird? Should they just not date it? What’s your take on something like this?

– Unsung Unicorn

In the U.S., typically the only thing you need written references for is higher education. Usually “references” for a job means that the person agrees to take phone calls or answer emails about you.

From the perspective of the person considering you for a job, this is much more valuable than a written letter for one simple reason. A former employer is very unlikely to write something negative in a letter. However, if I call someone’s former employer on the phone and say, “How is she with deadlines?” and the real answer is, “Terrible,” the former employer is probably going to say something diplomatic, like “About average, as far as I can remember.” But there’s usually going to be a pause, or a tone of voice that will tell me to steer clear — all while the former employer can claim to have given the person a perfectly nice recommendation.

Anyway, none of that is your problem because you were awesome at the jobs you’ve had!

Here is what you should do:

– Ask the person now, “Would it be okay if I listed you as a reference in the future?”

– At such time as you should need to call in this favor for a job, give the person a heads-up. “Thanks so much for agreeing to be my reference. You should be getting a call or email from Kenneth Brigantinehamschneider soon. I am applying for such-and-such job. In this job, I’ll be doing a lot of [hula hoop consulting], so it would be great if you could mention how we worked on [hula hoop consulting] together. Thank you so much!” Make sure to thank the person afterwards, and again if you get the job.

– If you do need a reference for grad school, it’s totally standard to ask, and then once the person agrees, send them a one-pager or a bullet list in an email with all the accomplishments you hope they’ll mention. Don’t say, “Make sure to mention these.” Say something softer like, “It’s been awhile since we worked together, so I thought it might help if I sent along this list of what I worked on at Company X.”

– What you CAN ask for now is not a full-page written recommendation, but a quote or blurb for your website, or a testimonial on LinkedIn. This is really just someone lending their name to a very nice sentence or paragraph about you. Since some people (especially older people, sometimes) are hesitant about splashing their names all over the Internet, you might begin this kind of request with, “If you feel comfortable, I’d be very grateful if you could write me a short endorsement on LinkedIn.”

– Also try, “I’m expanding my website, and I would like to put together a page of recommendations from people I’ve worked for.” Emphasize that anywhere from a couple of sentences to a couple of paragraphs would be fine. If you ask enough people for this, you’ll get a nice mix of detailed, verbose, formal recommendations and short, snappy, “Unsung Unicorn is da bomb!” comments, which means that the Endorsements page on your website will have a little something for everybody.

Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish on TheGloss. For a complete archive of Bullish, visit Get Bullish. To learn more about the upcoming Bullish Conference 2013 visit www.bullishconference.com.