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How to Ask Your Boss for a Reference — An Expert’s Advice

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Despite the economy freaking everyone out, the Canadian labour market is still hot. The pandemic made people ask: what am I doing? With that existential angst, the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, many people are leaving their current roles to pursue their dream job – or at least one that pays more money. 

“When we’re sitting home alone, doing this job without anything to distract us… we really get to see what our jobs are,” says career coach Emilia Stypulkowska. “Maybe the things keeping you motivated or afloat are no longer there. That can be a trigger to want to change your job.”

But finding a new role requires quite a bit of work. Beyond the initial job search, there are applications, rounds of interviews and skill-testing assignments. And then, there’s the references. 

Who better to show your potential new employer how amazing you are other than a reference from your current boss? But asking for a reference from your boss isn’t exactly easy. So how do you do it in a tactful way?

You may also like: Thinking of quitting your job? See this financial checklist first.

Get a reference before you’re on the job hunt

When you ask your boss for a reference, you’re basically shouting: “HEY, I’M LEAVING!” That doesn’t usually emit a “whoopee!” response from your boss (unless you have an open and trusting relationship with them, which, if you do, congrats!). 

To avoid this awkwardness, Stypulkowska recommends that you get a reference letter from your boss before you ever need one. For instance, after you’ve come off a successful project or finished up a great quarter. 

See also: Up your career skills with social media – here’s how.

“That is a good time to ask,” Stypulkowska says. “Not when you’re truly on the way out the door because, if it’s not a great situation, you don’t want to put the cart before the horse and put your employment at risk.”

Though asking for a reference letter without needing it sounds awkward, it can be done in a smooth fashion. Stypulkowska recommends framing the ask as insurance for internal company shifts, rather than leaving the company altogether. 


You can tell your boss you would like to document this successful moment in time to protect your job if your boss gets a promotion and/or moves departments, or if there are company leadership shifts. You can also say you’re documenting your successes to help with future promotions. So, it doesn’t have to be weird! 

You may also like: What is loud leadership — and why do we need it in the workplace?

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Wait until you absolutely need the reference

If you didn’t get a recommendation letter earlier from your boss, but need a reference for a new job, don’t worry. You can still get one!

Stypulkowska says wait until HR asks for the reference. Usually, it’s the last thing they ask for, so you have lots of time between the first interview and the reference round to see what happens. 

Putting “references available upon request” on your resume is now outdated, Stypulkowska says. So, HR won’t typically ask for references until you’re the final or one of the last few candidates for the role. 

To play it really safe, Stypulkowska says you can wait until you have a written offer from the new company and then ask your boss for the reference. So, if your boss freaks out about you leaving, at least you know your livelihood likely isn’t in jeopardy.

Related: 10 red flags to watch out for before you sign a job offer.

Just…don’t ask

Sometimes, unfortunately, our bosses are just not great. You know that if you ask for a reference, your boss will say bad things about you during the reference chat with HR or refuse to answer the phone. 

“You have to be able to trust your references 100 per cent not to say anything that could be interpreted as negative or that you’re not qualified,” Stypulkowska says.


She adds that many HR people don’t expect you to get a reference from your boss because they know it can jeopardize your current employment.

Stypulkowska recommends asking a trusted colleague for a reference instead of your boss. This can be someone who works on your team or your work BFF. As long as they work at the same company and can speak to your capabilities, they’re a good reference. 

You may also like: The gender pay gap is still alive: here’s how we bridge it.

Remember: references are always awkward to ask for – especially from your current boss. Preparation is key to making sure that you get the reference you need for the job you deserve!


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