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Getting a Reference Letter From Your Boss

by Ellie Williams, studioD

A glowing recommendation from your boss can go a long way in helping you find a new job or earn honors such as fellowships, awards, or admittance into competitive training and educational programs. However, many people are unsure how to tactfully request a reference or afraid they’ll be turned down. The key lies in respecting your supervisor’s time and making the process as easy as possible.

Confirm Your Supervisor’s Intentions

Only ask your boss for a reference if you’re confident he’ll give you a positive recommendation. Many employers and organizations will understand if you can’t use your current boss as a reference, so if you don’t have a good relationship with him or you know he’s highly critical of your work, find someone else. If you’re not sure what he’ll say, ask him to let you know if he has any reservations about acting as a reference. Tell him how important the opportunity is and that it’s crucial you find someone who can wholeheartedly recommend you.

Make It Easy

Writing a recommendation letter can bring with it a lot of pressure, especially if your boss doesn’t often write them. Help him by offering suggestions or a template to use as a model. This can be as simple as a bulleted list of projects you’ve completed or contributed to, changes or improvements you’ve made at the company and awards and other honors. If you’re asking for a letter for an award or for an educational pursuit, give your boss a copy of any literature or other materials explaining the program. This will give him a better idea of what kind of information is needed and help him tailor his letter.

Give Him an “Out”

Your boss may not feel comfortable providing a letter of reference for you, perhaps because he can’t enthusiastically recommend you or because he hasn’t worked with you long. In many cases a reference from a colleague or other associate will suffice, so don’t pressure your boss into writing a letter. Tell him you know he’s busy and you’ll understand if he doesn’t have time or doesn’t feel he knows you well enough to offer a reference.


When you approach your boss, thank him for agreeing to write a reference and let him know how much his recommendation means to you. Do this again after he writes the letter. By showing your appreciation, you strengthen your relationship with him and make it more likely he’ll agree if you need another reference in the future. Also, don’t read the letter without asking permission. Some organizations want the letter sent directly to them from the writer, while others accept it from the applicant. If your boss gives the letter to you, let him know you’d appreciate a copy but don’t read it without his knowledge.

About the Author

Ellie Williams has been a journalist since 2001. Her work has been recognized by her state's press association and by her local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Williams graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in mass communications and humanities, with minors in French and theater.

Photo Credits

  • Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images