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I've had a few people ask me to act as a reference for them. I'm usually open to this, but I always follow up with a couple of questions.

What specific positions are you applying to?
What specific traits, abilities, or experiences would you like me to emphasize?

To clarify, I don't expect them to give me stock answers to possible questions. Rather, I'm asking to find out how they want me to present them to a potential employer. The way you might want me to portray you to a large multi-national firm might be different than to a small local startup.

My expectation for this kind of information comes from the times I've had to request reference letters professionally. It's always been the expectation that I would write the letter, and assuming they agreed with it, they would endorse it.

Are my expectations reasonable? What information do you expect from someone who asks you to act as a reference for them?


It wasn't clear from my original question, but I'm not being asked to give a reference letter, but rather a standard phone reference. I brought up the reference letter as an example. I expect to give guidance to someone that I'm asking for a reference from, whether it will be a written or a verbal reference.

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@Nathanael in general, questions which are closed to not meet the descriptions here for subjective questions –  enderland Jan 16 '13 at 22:26

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

What specific positions are you applying to?

This seems to be asking for both the companies and positions being applied to. A person will not always know these when they are asking your permission to use you as a reference. If they did know, told you, and were unsuccessful with their initial list of company/position pairs, would there be an expectation to tell you of the next round of company/position pairs? This question might (and to me would) convey that permission to use you as a reference is very limited; whereas the normal expectation would be that a reference can be used for the period of this job search, your response would seem to limit it to a set of applications.

If company/position approvals wasn't your intention, perhaps "What type of position will you be applying to?" might be more appropriate, with the goal being to know enough about the positions that when you do describe the individual you can give relevant information.

What specific traits, abilities, or experiences would you like me to emphasize?

This sounds like you want them to put words in your mouth, which you would then parrot mechanically to the person calling you, and which they would assume was coached and therefore discard or hold against the applicant.

The individual calling you will probably have specific questions for you, which you should be answering based on your experiences with the applicant. "Is there anything in particular you want me to mention?" is less imposing, and makes it sound like you will put together your own words but are just looking for something they are particularly proud of or think the company would be interested in hearing about.


Regarding reference letters:

Unless the person asking specified reference letter, I think "reference phone call" should be assumed, though it may be different in your field.

For a reference letter, I do think asking for more specifics on talking points is quite reasonable, as it is hard for you to free-form write about someone without knowing what they want you to talk about or at what length. Were I asking for a reference letter, I would probably do it in writing with some bullet points that I would want your final product to incorporate.

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tl;dr: completely reasonable.

I'm going to answer your questions from three perspectives: as someone also asked to provide reference letters, as someone who used to teach students about how to ask for references, and as the product owner for a company who offers a confidential letter of recommendation delivery service. The good news is that the answers are the same from all three perspectives!

  • As someone also asked to provide reference letters -- either for former students, employees, business partners, whatever -- I always ask for these things right up front: the type of letter (generic or specific; "generic" comes up a lot for academic positions or graduate school applications, where one letter might be used 10 or 15 different times, and the areas of emphasis are virtually identical), current resume/CV, information in their own words about what they've been up to/focusing on since last we were in contact, and finally a description of the position or positions for which they'll be using the letter, with URLs to job ads if available.

  • As someone who used to teach students how to ask for references -- my students were taught to provide up front, or offer to provide, precisely the information indicated above when they asked for a reference letter. Instead of bombarding potential writers with information, students were taught to ask first if the person would be willing, and then offer to send "any of the following information that would help you to write a good letter", after which they listed the items they had available. Much like you have observed, I found that before this bit of "wisdom" was passed on to the students, they had not the foggiest idea that anyone would need or want this sort of information. Sometimes this was because they assumed that they were the center of everyone else's world, but mostly it was because they had no idea what goes into a recommendation letter in the first place.

  • As someone who builds a product to facilitate the request and delivery of confidential letters of recommendation -- I have 250,000 letter-writing users who would tell you that above all else, they wish the people requesting letters of them would provide more information with the request. To that end, we're actually building precisely those fields into the letter request process user interface (position(s) applied for, links to ads, include current CV). It was the number one feature request, because letter writers --like yourself, or like myself -- know that a reference letter is much more than a few sentences about whether or not Jane Applicant worked for you from 2009 to 2011 and "did a good job", and instead is one of the most important supporting documents in an application packet, as in some cases it is the recommendation-writer who will do a better job of illuminating the strengths of the applicant in relation to the job opening than the applicant him or herself, and these letters often carry weight of more significance than the applicant's own cover letter, even. Until the people for whom you are writing letters are themselves in positions of writing letters, this is not something they often understand.

You ask if your expectations are reasonable, and without hesitation I say that unequivocally it is completely reasonable for someone to provide you with the basic information about position(s) applied for and preferred areas of emphasis, for precisely the reasons that you describe.

Note: of course not all positions are the types for which letters of recommendation, rather than general references or employment verifications, are used. My answer is best used for those that are, which happen to be the types of positions I deal with the most. YMMV.

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Spot on. If you give the information to the person they can say, "oh I just need to write about this, done" vs "well @#%@#, what do I remember about this person to write a page about?" This probably also directly translates to phone references too who will get asked the same things –  enderland Jan 17 '13 at 0:11
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It doesn't change my answer at all, no. It's still completely reasonable to ask for information in order to provide the best picture you can in the context for which you are providing the reference. If it's "just" a phone reference rather than a letter, you are unlikely to use much of it, but if you have to, you want to be prepared (they should want you to be prepared!). –  jcmeloni Jan 17 '13 at 0:11

Generally, there are a few points:

  • What was the working relationship I had with this person,e.g. is this my former manager, a peer on the same team, someone from another team, etc.?
  • What was my general impression of this person?
  • What concerns did I have in working with this person?

As for the questions you list, here is where I'd have issues with these:

If I'm asking someone to be a reference before I've applied anywhere, how am I to know what the specifics are of the job before sending in anything? This isn't necessarily that unrealistic. Secondly, there could be cases where a company has multiple openings that I'm applying and thus it isn't that there isn't necessarily a specific position since there could be a few that I'm open to accepting.

As for the traits, abilities and experiences, this runs the risk of getting into having been coached in terms of an answer. If I'm telling you want to say, that could be seen as crossing a line. There can also be more than a few different questions that may come up and thus it isn't easy to pick just the good stuff.

I'd say that it is reasonable for someone to ask what general impression I have, what working relationship we had, but I'd draw the line at wanting to be given what responses someone expects me to have on hand all the time should I be asked, "What was it like working with Bob?"


As the question has been edited a little bit, let me add a bit here to cover this. A reference letter is slightly different as this is a one-time expression that is quite different than what I tend to imagine when I'm asking someone to be a reference or I'm a reference for someone else. In being a reference, I'm presuming there could be questions asked to cover various materials that is quite different than how I'd see a reference letter. Reference letters can be rather stock and copied to be used multiple times easily enough. Having someone be a reference can mean having that person's contact information handy so that it can be passed as well as remembering that person.

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I take a pretty different tact. Here's my list:

What are you up to?

I go with this or a similarly general question path to mine what the person is needing a reference for. If I don't like the person well enough to care what they are up to, then that's a good indicator that I probably shouldn't provide a reference. But then I value a pretty diverse connection set.

Usually this is more along the lines of what is the person doing recently, what are they going for next (a job, a position in a volunteer group, academics, etc). That gives me a sense of what they want out of me as a reference without forcing them to commit to a certain set of positions.

I do expect that if they want me as a reference for, say, a job in the tech industry, then I'm not signing up to be a reference for something wildly outside that sphere.

What do you need from me?

Meaning more form-factor than specific characteristics. If you want a letter, then when do you need it? If you want a phone reference, then I better tell you that I'm easier to find by email, and they need to schedule time with me, because I'm that hard to get on the phone. There's a lot of logistics here that we better be clear on.

Also, this is a way to confirm why they are contacting me - personal or professional references are usually the big difference. But I have also written reference letters for visas, which can be a bit different in both format and intent.

Please give me a heads up

If the person is applying around for a bunch of jobs and they know when I'm likely to get called (usually in the tech industry, this is after the hiring process has gotten very likely and serious, if not after the formal offer) - then I ask that where possible they give me a heads up. With the understanding that sometimes this simply isn't possible.

I usually just ask for a quick ping to my email - the big deal for me is that my schedule and communication streams are nuts, and the more notice, the better. I want to make sure that if I commit to giving a reference, I will manage to be helpful and timely.

Send me your Resume

Let me have something to speak to, and that will let me structure my thoughts. I've been in the position of having worked with companies with multiple names - so it's especially helpful to have the resume and be able to say "Ah - yes - we worked together in XYZ Company". When fact-checkers call, they are likely to mispronounce, and reference companies strangely - so the better I can do at sounding clued in, the stronger my reference will be.

Content

I may confirm general intent for content across these topics, but I won't make any commitment to what I'll say, nor will I ask for suggestions. Many times, it's irrelevant - having talked to my own reference-givers, I've found that all our Serious Talking about my current goals was pointless, because all the investigation did was verify times and places. Also, asking "any requests" implies that I'll do what you ask. I won't. People are mix of bad and good - if you trust me to be your reference, you'll have to trust that I'm not going to be a jerk. I will be honest, truthful and positive and do my best to put you in the best light, but accurately.

If I can't be honest and positive at the same time, I will not agree to be your reference.

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