Way back in 2007, we started a conversation about references. Back THEN, I told you one part of asking for references. In a nutshell, we discussed the importance of being courteous, diplomatic, and grateful when asking someone to be a reference for you. I expanded on this point a lot in FINANCE FOR YOUTH: THE BOOK, especially for people with little or no actual job history. But what if you actually have some experience? Who do you ask? When do you ask? Why should you ask? These are the questions that young people (and not so young people, alike) need answered.
Asking for references can be dicey when you are asking your boss so that you can move on to greener pastures. You are putting yourself out there for all sorts of badness to occur. Your boss might decide to start making your job more difficult. Your boss might decide to not give a reference. Your boss might do both. These are risks that come with adulthood. You have to decide when and where you are willing to take those risks, or you risk getting a better job somewhere. The best advice I can give is for you to not wait until the last-minute. More specifically, there are a number of precautions you can take to help ensure that you can get a good reference when the time comes. Ideally, you will want to ask for a reference as you are leaving a company. That makes asking for references easy. But sometimes you are still working for one boss when you happen upon an opportunity that you just can’t afford to pass up.
Way before you start looking:
1. Be a good employee. This might sound stupid and not worthy of needing to be said, but you’d be surprised at how many young people (and older people as well) are perfectly mediocre employees for most of their time with an employer, only becoming model employees a short time before they ask the hapless employer for a letter of recommendation. This doesn’t work. You have to be a good employee ALL THE TIME! Employers look at your performance every day. They want to get a good feel for what type of employee you are. If you have a bad day, they can write that off as an anomaly. Or, if you are persistently a bad employee, your boss can write off the few good days before you ask for references as anomalies.
2. Take your time. Some employees barely get their permanent name tag before they decide they need to hit the dusty trail in order to find something better. Hey, that’s your right. You can jump from job to job as long as you can keep finding people to hire you. That’s one of the benefits to being young. But the other side of the benefit is the responsibility. If you decide to job-jump, you will most likely NOT get any reference from your employer.
3. Communicate with your boss. Let your boss know what your goals are at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. Don’t bad-mouth the company ever, but if your goals include a different path, be honest about it. When I worked at McDonald’s, my boss never had any illusions that I wanted to become a McDonald’s manager or owner. When I worked at my last financial institution, they knew that they were a temporary stopping place.
While you look:
4. Be clear. Let your boss know that you are considering putting in for another position, and let them know why. Again, don’t make it about what you aren’t getting from your current boss, but about all the opportunities that you will get from the new position. Who knows? Maybe your current boss can meet your needs. Especially in an economy like the one we find ourselves in currently, I strongly endorse keeping the job you have over hoping you can do better somewhere else.
5. Be classy. If you plan on asking your boss for a recommendation, give them the opportunity to say no without you getting butt-hurt about it. Going back to number one on this list, your boss has an opinion about you. Maybe they are trying to save you some embarrassment by not giving you a reference letter. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable with writing these kinds of letters. Maybe they don’t have the authority (they might work for someone else) to do what you need. No matter what, remember that you are asking them for a favor, not demanding your due.
6. Be Timely. Look, you’re already going to want to give your boss at least two weeks’ notice when you actually leave. If you are asking for a letter, you want to give your boss at least that much time to give your request the attention you deserve. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but many times you can give your boss at least a few days notice. Under no circumstances should you go to your boss and tell them that you need a letter in an hour!
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