References are an important part of the hiring process. You might look great on paper, interview well and appear to have all the qualities that a company is looking for in an employee. However, references provide additional insight that can seal the deal in your favor by describing what it’s like to actually work with you and specific aspects of your experience. While most career experts recommend asking individuals other than your current supervisor for references, if you must list him, the best way to ask for his help is to be upfront and honest about your job search.
Making the Ask
Asking your current boss for a recommendation can be awkward, because you have probably kept your job search confidential. To make the request, schedule a private meeting with her, and explain that you have been exploring other opportunities and would like permission to use her as a reference. In some cases, she may not be surprised by your reveal, especially if you have been experiencing challenges. If your boss is surprised, though, she may be upset or even angry that you are looking for a new job. Avoid giving too many details about the new job or why you are leaving, and keep the conversation focused on your own career development. For example, you might say, “I realize this may come as a surprise, but I have been pursuing some new opportunities. I have an opportunity to move into a position that offers me more responsibility, and I’d be grateful if I could use you as a reference, because you are most familiar with my recent work.”
If you aren’t sure your boss will take the news well, or you fear he could sabotage your chances at the new position, use LinkedIn as a tool for a reference. Ask your boss to write a recommendation that you can add to your LinkedIn profile, which you can use in future job searches. Updating your LinkedIn presence doesn’t necessarily mean that you are looking for a new job, but your boss will understand that his words may help you land a new role in the future. When you have a LinkedIn recommendation from your current boss, you can direct a prospective employer to it when you're asked for references. Say something like, “Because my job search is confidential, I would prefer not to use my current employer as a reference. However, he did write a glowing recommendation on LinkedIn that speaks to my qualifications.” Most employers will respect your wishes and contact your other references instead.
If you ask your boss for a reference for a new job, follow the same etiquette that you would with any other referrer. Keep her updated on your job-search efforts, and comply with your company’s policies regarding adequate notice should you decide to leave. Keep your search efforts out of the office, and continue to provide the same care and attention to your work as you would normally – or even work a little bit harder. If your boss does supply a reference, send a handwritten note thanking her for her time, effort and understanding.
Preparing for the Worst
It is possible that your request for a reference may not go as planned. Your boss could refuse, either because he has concerns about your performance or doesn’t want to see you go. If that’s the case, inform your prospective employer that you don’t feel comfortable providing a reference from your current boss, and direct her to your company’s HR department instead. Your boss could also get angry and fire you for looking for a new job while still employed. In all states except for Montana, most employees are “at will,” meaning that you can be fired without cause. This is one of the key reasons you should provide references from previous jobs, volunteer work or school, rather than a current supervisor. If you decide to take the risk, though, understand that it could backfire and you could be changing jobs sooner than expected.