What are the Best-Practices to Ask for Professional References from Your Ex-Boss?

A former employee meeting with her ex-boss
Reaching out to a former employer or an ex-boss to ask for a professional reference during a job hunt can be a challenging task. If you left your previous organization on great terms, this shouldn’t be a very daunting thing.

However, if you locked horns with an ex-boss, you may want to get some expert advice on contacting them to ask for a reference. All in all, seeking professional references and recommendations is a delicate procedure. Whether you’re a newbie at this or a seasoned employee, there’s always room for improvement.

In this blog, you will learn three strategies to ask for a professional reference from your ex-supervisor.

Know the Difference Between a Recommendation and a Job Verification

Recommendations are typically requested by an employee of former or current managers that have direct experience regarding your work history. You should only ask managers that you are confident believe that you did a good job, and therefore that will say positive things about you.

It is never appropriate to request a letter of recommendation from someone that did not work closely with you, who can genuinely speak to your abilities.

I find it utterly bizarre when I receive requests via LI to write letters of recommendation or endorsements for someone that I have never directly worked with. Not only is it unethical, but the assumption is that the requesting party has no legitimate people that he or she can request such an endorsement from, so they are resorting to asking strangers.

Job Verification occurs when you are under going a background check. The hiring manager,  recruiter, HR from your new company or professional reference checkers will call to verify what you have reported is factual, in terms of dates of employment, if you are eligible for re-hire, and scope of work.

While it is illegal to share specific negative things about a former employee, there is nothing preventing prior bosses from singing your praises, so if a reference checker calls and receives ‘just the facts’, that occasionally translates into a negative. They will call your former company regardless of whether you provide a letter of recommendation or not as part of a standard background check, so it is always wise to do your very best to leave on good terms.

What Should You Do if You Left on Bad Terms?

We all make mistakes, and occasionally good people leave jobs on a sour note. As in all things in life, addressing the issue head on is the best way to handle this. As soon as possible, again prior to actually needing them, consider acknowledging the issue head way with a genuine apology. While it would be presumptuous to ask someone that you did not do a great job with for a recommendation, hopefully a sincere apology will mitigate the fall out when you are applying for a different job, and that person is called to verify employment. We can all pick up on tone of voice, and often times what is not said is just as powerful as what is said.

Know WHEN to Ask for a Recommendation

The best time to ask for a recommendation, is before you need it! It is always good to have a few letters of recommendation in a folder, ready to provide upon request. Try to make it a practice to ask for letters of recommendation from every single direct supervisor, either after a yearly or quarterly review, or after you tender your resignation if you have not received one prior to that.

Provide a Clear Call To Action!

Job seekers who want to get professional references from their former employers often ignore the importance of providing a clear CTA along with their request. For instance, if you are pursuing an opportunity that requires a specific skill set, be sure to request that they mention your experience within that area in order to have your LoR carry greater weight.

Along with a respectful request, it is always smart to clarify the time line that you need your Letter of Recommendation, along with any specific points you are hoping they will include. If you know the hiring manager that you are currently interviewing with is looking for a team leader, who has a positive attitude and high energy, it would be wise to request that your former boss reference those attributes in your LoR, always assuming that whatever you are requesting is factual.


Have Backups

Sometimes, you may not be able to reach an ex-boss due to several reasons. They may be too busy to attend to these requests or simply on vacation at a Hawaiian beach. This is when the backups step in.
If you are unable to get in touch with a former boss, consider reaching out to a university professor, team leader, or your colleagues. Moreover, you can also request a letter of recommendation from your former company’s HR but the vast majority of the time, other than someone that had a direct relationship with you that was extremely favorable, HR will strictly provide the basics.

While you never want to ask someone for a LoR that did not manage you directly, you do want to make a point of consistently requesting recommendation letters when appropriate, and ideally before you need them.

Put Those Recommendations to Work!

For job seekers that want to utilize those great recommendations, and are open to considering new opportunities, check out International Search Consultants list of Hot Jobs for potential matches.

You can also send in your resume to to have your resume added to our confidential database. Rest assured that we never share details about individual candidates without going over a specific job in-depth, ensuring that not only does the candidate meet & exceed all the mandatory qualifications that the hiring company is looking for, but also that the role is truly a good match for the candidate, in terms of career path, company culture, and compensation.

Ann Zaslow-Rethaber is President of International Search Consultants, a leader in executive search since 1999. Our team of 15 experienced recruiters can provide top talent for a variety of roles within SalesFinance, and HR .

Carolyn McClendon is a Senior Director of Talent Acquisition, and can be reached via direct dial at 888-974-0086 or email at