Hiring 101: Requesting a reference letter


Reference letters are not a thing of the past, and you may on occasion find that you need to request a written reference letter to keep on file. While this is not common practise, at some stage in your career it is bound to happen.

As a hiring manager, recruiter, or HR team, completing reference checks by phone is second nature. You know what to ask and how to probe deeper. You’ve locked down your listening skills, and you know not to make assumptions about what a reference will say in advance. However, a reference letter is an entirely different situation.

Emails tend to be perfectly crafted and very polite; they allow the reference too long to think about their answers and you often don’t get a straightforward reply. As long as you keep this in mind, you can make a request for written references that will still allow you the level of insight that a telephone reference would have provided.

Make sure they know

The reference needs to know that a written reference letter request will be coming to them by email or mail, and when they can expect it. Make sure they are aware of a deadline to get the reference letter back to you by. This is to ensure that you receive the letter in a timely manner.

Details to include

Whether you are sending an email or an actual letter (these do still happen), there are a few items you will want to include in your request. Make sure that your request includes all your details. This includes your name, position, company name, and contact number. They all provide legitimacy to your request.

Though we don’t advise it, should you decide to send a request by post, don’t forget to include the date the letter was sent, and your return postal address.

Finally, make sure to state why you are looking for a reference letter. Providing the “why” allows the reference to make sure they are giving you information in the right context.

Questions to ask

You need to ask reference questions that factor in both industry standards and technical specifications that the position may entail. Start with straightforward introductory questions, before asking more open-ended substantial ones. Always making sure you aren’t asking inappropriate questions.

For an example of some questions you might like to ask, click here.  Any questions you ask should work towards establishing the candidates’ work history, skills, potential cultural fit, and ability to do the role you are considering them for.

Sample reference letter

RE: Reference for Jane Smith

Dear Dave Jones,

Jane Smith has applied for a position with ABC Company as a Project Engineer. She has listed you as a reference for the time she worked at DEF Company. We are interested in getting more details about her time working with you and would appreciate if you are able to answer the following questions to the best of your ability. The information you provide will help us make an informed decision on whether we would like to hire her.

Please be aware that any information you provide is strictly confidential. Jane has signed a release authorising you to provide the information requested below. If you have any questions, please contact me on my number, or email, listed below.

In advance, thank you for taking your time to complete this reference letter for Jane. As there is a role we are currently considering Jane for, we would really appreciate a reply by [fill in date].

What dates did she work at DEF Company and what was her position when you worked together?

In what capacity did you know or work with her? How long did you work together?

What was her main responsibilities and duties in her role?

Please let me know any areas of strength that will help her excel in this role, or areas of weakness that might influence her job perform.

Tell me about her biggest accomplishment while working with you?

Why did she leave her role with ABC Company?

Is there anything else you would like me to know about her?

Lastly, company policies aside, would you rehire her if you had the opportunity again?

Simon Simpson, General Manager, ABC Company
+1 000 000 0000     simon@abccompany.com

Always remember

Even though this is a written reference, you are still taking up someone’s time. While you want to make sure you are getting all the information you need, err on the side of brevity in your questioning. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

The recruitment team at Energy Resourcing knows this which is why we take such care when doing reference checks. The information we gather during reference checks helps our clients make informed hiring decisions, so we make sure to get as many details as we possibly can.  We love what we do, and would love to help with your next hire.