If you’ve been working for a while, and you want to advance your career, you’re eventually going to find yourself having to decide whether or not to ask your employer for a reference for a job application.

A reference from your current boss can be a great addition to your CV when applying for a new job, but be careful not to pursue this path if you aren’t 100% sure that the outcome will be positive for both you and your current employer.

A question that you need to ask yourself before you approach your boss is:
“What do I mean to my current employer?”

If your answer is that you are an average (or poor-performing) employee:

It might sound harsh, but your employer might not mind if you’re considering moving to another company. Your boss might even be aware that you are bored or unhappy in your current position, and by helping you to gain employment elsewhere (without having to address your performance in your current position), it could lead to a win-win situation for both you and your current employer.

It is important that you still approach your boss in the appropriate manner when asking for a reference. Use your own discretion in deciding whether to ask for a reference in person or via e-mail. An e-mail request will give your employer the opportunity to decline your request gracefully.

Also think about whether your boss knows you well enough to write you a reference, and whether he or she will have time over the next few days to write you one. Should you sense even a bit of hesitation, do not push your boss to write a reference — an average reference could be just as bad for your future career prospects as a negative one.

If your answer is that you are a highly valued employee:

If you are a highly valued employee within your current company, asking for a reference from your current employer can be a bit trickier. If you have a good relationship with your boss, and you often discuss your career and future job prospects in such a way that you know he/she encourages you to spread your wings in search of better opportunities, asking your boss for a reference could do no harm.

The same would apply if both you and your boss are aware of the fact that growth opportunities for your current position at your company are very limited or simply non-existent, or if you require a pay raise and your current employer simply can’t afford to pay you more.

It can be trickier to ask for a reference if you are a highly valued employee

But if you don’t have this kind of relationship with your current employer, or if you fear that it would do more harm than good if he or she knows that you’re actively seeking new job opportunities, the safest option would probably be not to ask for a reference. Asking a senior colleague or previous employer might be a better and safer option in such a situation.

Other general tips when asking for a reference:

  • Provide the person giving you a reference with a copy of your updated CV, as well as the job description for the position that you will be applying for. This will help them to structure the reference in such a way that it highlights your suitability for the new job.
  • Think about the purpose of the reference, and who would be most suitable for providing it. Remember that your references don’t always need to include employers only; they can also include senior colleagues, college/university tutors and lecturers, or senior members of any volunteer organisations you are involved in.
  • Find out which method of communication is preferred by each reference, and include this information on your CV. It doesn’t help if you have strong references, but your prospective employer can’t get hold of any of the contacts on your list!

Click here for more tips on how to write an exceptional CV

Have you ever had to ask an employer for a reference? Share your own tips and experience with us by leaving a comment in the box below!