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One of my friends from the university years is now working at what seems to be a pretty good software company. We still see each other every now and then (i.e. once every 2-3 months or so) and about an year ago when he started working there he offered to refer me for a position within his department. I didn't want to apply then, but I'm seriously contemplating it now.

The problem is that I'm a bit of a shy when it comes to these things (and not only) and I don't want to take advantage of the fact that we know each other. I'm also not very sure that I will be able to become a good hire there so I don't want to damage our friendship by asking for a referral, but I'm interested in listening to some more details he can share about his work and besides I feel somehow obliged to tell him that I will be applying (i.e. it will be awkward if he sees me at the interview). He is at a relatively high position within the company, so most probably when the HRs do a background check on me they will notice that we know each other and will pick his opinion about me anyway. What (and how) should I tell him? I don't want to ask for a referral - only for some internal information and don't want to seem like someone who is taking advantage and make things between us awkward afterwards.

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Take your friend out to lunch. While at lunch, tell him you're considering applying for the XYZ job at ABC company, and ask him what he thinks -- nothing more.

By asking for his opinion, you're telling him you're interested in the position, you care about what he thinks, and you're not explicitly asking for a referral.

Since he is "at a relatively high position in the company", he will definitely let you know if this position isn't right for you. He'll also let you know if it is a good fit, and may even know about a few positions that haven't been advertised yet.

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    Good answer. I like to be more direct lol. Just tell him you're looking for work and was interested in the company he works for and go from there. – Noah Jan 24 '17 at 21:18
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Don't be afraid to do this. I ask some people I know if their company has job openings. Keep in mind that your friends may know of unadvertised openings and can put in a good word for you.

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