Make no mistake about it — a letter of recommendation is not just a “nice-to-have” addition to your professional documents. It is a must-have. It sets you apart from the competition, saves time and effort on the part of the people looking to hire you, and is a great conversation-starter as part of the interview process… as long as you have a good one.
Let’s go through how to have that conversation with your managers (current and former), and what you need to provide them so they give you the perfect letter to complement your next interview.
- Basic Etiquette
- Asking a Current Employer
- Asking a Former Employer
- Follow Up With a Written Request
- Video: Asking Your Boss for a Recommendation Letter
You want to make sure that you catch your manager at a time when they are free to consider your request honestly. This isn’t something you spring on your manager as you pass in the hallway, or in between phone calls during a hectic workday. Do a little scouting and make sure your manager isn’t totally swamped or frazzled. Then, drop in and ask when they might have time to chat with you about a professional matter.
In the case of a former manager, you won’t have the ability to scout out as much ahead of time. Instead, reaching out via email or phone to ask for a meeting will have to do.
Depending on what you click on, you can find articles telling you that it is more proper to ask for recommendations face-to-face or indirectly, (sometimes even from the same site, like these two incredibly similar articles from WikiHow that happen to advocate face-to-face and indirect outreach).
You probably have some sense of how your manager prefers to discuss important issues. Are they a fan of face-to-face, or do they prefer to hash these things out via email or text? Are you nervous about their response, or are you sure they’ll say yes? If you have doubts, an indirect response will allow both of you to save face if they’d rather not do it. The important thing is to consider what makes your manager comfortable, and then go that route.
Most bosses are really busy, and they’re usually being pulled in 15 different directions at once. Even if they are enthusiastic about writing you a recommendation, they could get slammed with a project or pulled into a conference call or have to go put out a fire that’s raging on their watch. Give them plenty of time to get this done — meaning months, in some cases.
It feels somewhat uncomfortable to ask your current manager for a letter that will help you get a job with someone else, doesn’t it? You don’t want them to think you’re dissatisfied with where you are (whether that’s true or not) and you don’t want them to treat you like they think you’re trying to leave (whether you are or not). Also, if you ask for a letter of recommendation before you’re a finalist for a new position and they let you go, well, then you’re in a bad spot1.
But there are other ways to ask that don’t feel like you’re abandoning your post. You can let your boss know that you would like a letter of recommendation to share on your LinkedIn profile2. You can also ask them to endorse you for certain skills on your profile. That way, it just looks like your professional appearance is important to you — not like you have one foot out the door.
Similarly, you can tell your manager that you would love to have a letter of recommendation from them for your records, just in case you might need it in the future. While some managers may cling to the idea that they are special and their employees will want to stay with them forever, most are more pragmatic and understand that turnover is real and that you will likely be working for someone else someday. Express how important you think it would be to have their support “just in case I ever need it in the future”, and they’ll likely be too busy glowing over the compliment to worry about the thought of you leaving.
While asking a former manager for a recommendation certainly has less immediate impact on your current job situation, it is not without its own potential pitfalls — like, do they remember who you are? Many of us have inflated views of our own importance in the eyes of our managers (remember: they are busy). So, when you talk to your former manager (either in person or via email/chat), don’t assume that they remember you the way you remember them, or that they remember your accomplishments the way you do. If you can, be sure to drop some seeds about your time together when you ask them to write you a letter of recommendation.
Example: “I’m using the work we did on that big event for heart disease awareness as part of my portfolio, so I thought any potential future employer would love to hear your take on how that went.”
That compliments your former manager on their importance and jogs their memory about what you did while you were there. To further help your managers in getting what you want into your letters….
Send them a formal request in writing for your letter after your initial discussion, and with it, be sure to include:
- A letter of recommendation template letter (like this one!)
- A packet with any relevant info they should know3 (resume, transcripts, case studies, portfolio)
- A description of what the letter will be used for and how they should submit it (either to you or the company looking to hire you, if you’re that far along).
Though you are including a written template, be sure to let your recipients know that the template is there as a guide and a time saver, and they are free to fill it out if they are busy or write their own letter if they have the time.
Thank Them! (Yes, It’s Important!)
Finally, don’t forget to thank your managers for taking the time to help you along your career path. Letters of recommendation are very important and aren’t to be taken lightly, and any manager who writes one is putting their name on the line for your career. That’s a big vote of confidence and is certainly worth a thank-you letter.
With your letters of recommendation in your professional toolkit, you will be just a little bit more prepared to turn your next job interview into your next job offer. Be sure to check out our list of professional form templates for other potential additions to your career briefcase.