How to Ask for a Referral Without Looking Sleazy

Tap your network—the right way—so you can land that job

If you’re looking for a new job, the best way to get noticed isn’t show-off-y tactics like video resumes or sending gifts to hiring managers. Nope, to get yourself to the top of the pile at your company of choice, it helps most to know somebody on the inside. You need an employee referral.

An “in” at your dream company probably isn’t conveniently waiting around in the wings. You have to make that connection from scratch. That means asking people you already know to introduce you to the folks they know…without coming across as sleazy, desperate or out of touch.

That’s a tall order, but no worries. We tapped two pros who are constantly peppered with referral requests to give us three quick steps to getting referrals on the up-and-up.

Lay the Groundwork

Your network has never been more important than it is now. For those who are relatively new to the workforce, it’s especially important to develop a system of contacts you can call on when you need to.

Ted Leonhardt, a career coach who focuses on helping creatives and professionals land their dream jobs, has ideas for how, exactly, you can do that. “Volunteer for a professional association in your field, tap your college alumni networks and be sure to identify and reach out to the connectors in your field,” he says. Connectors are people who either have enormous networks or love helping others get ahead.

But it’s not enough to have 500 contacts on LinkedIn, either. You need to keep your relationships with the folks you’ve worked with, and those who can help you move up in your industry, fresh and relevant. If you’ve just made a new connection, don’t immediately ask that person for a favor.

Dirk Spencer, a recruitment adviser and author of Resume Psychology, suggests meeting them on their own turf, whether that’s on social media platforms like Twitter or LinkedIn, at professional association events, or at local happy hours for people in your industry.

Make the Ask

Remember, your contacts can’t read your mind. “When I was a young designer at art school and had a baby on the way, I asked my professors for ideas about freelance opportunities and ways to make extra money,” Leonhardt says. “They would never have known that I was interested and needed the referrals had I not had the guts to ask.”

How should you ask for a referral the right way? Here are Spencer’s dos and don’ts:

  • Open honestly. Start your initial email or face-to-face conversation by getting directly to the point. “I hate to ask, but…” or “Do you have a few minutes to talk about…” are both good options that demonstrate respect for your contact’s time, Spencer says. That show of respect also makes him much more willing to lobby his network for information he doesn’t have himself, Spencer adds.
  • Come prepared. You should always come into the conversation with companies and specific contacts there already in mind. When your connection says, “Sure, I know a bunch of people at such-and-such agency. Who are you interested in speaking with,” you’ll have answers on the tip of your tongue.
  • Never make the referrer do your job. Spencer’s biggest “don’t” is asking what he calls the empty question: “Do you have any referrals?” In the digital age, there is no excuse for not doing your own research.

Unfortunately, you can ace the ask and still get a “Sorry, I can’t” from a close connection. Spencer urges you not to take it personally.

“Typically this response happens because they have been burned by a previous referral or the location of the ask is out of place,” he explains. If your referral request is shut down, accept the situation gracefully and pivot the conversation to a safe topic.

Finesse Your Follow-through

Once you’ve made the ask, the two most important things to do are to follow through and follow up, says Leonhardt.

“If someone has agreed to share a contact,” he explains, “it’s your job to follow up with that person. Not only does it show respect for your colleague, but it also shows you have the drive and moxie for the job.”

Once you’ve made contact, report back to the person who did you the favor in the first place. “It’s important to send thank-you notes and keep your contacts apprised of your progress—especially if you land a job or a project based on their referral,” Leonhardt says. “People always remember how you make them feel. You want your contacts to feel good when they think about you.”

That’ll come in handy the next time you need a little help.

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Climb the Ladder, Networking