One of the best ways to get a foot in the door with a potential employer is to be recommended by someone who already works there. That may be true, but a referral is no guarantee of an interview, let alone a job offer. In fact, a poorly handled referral can leave you worse off than if you were just another unknown job candidate.
Here's how to ask for a referral the right way:
Before you ask
"It never hurts to ask" is normally a sound principle for job seekers, but it doesn't apply to referrals. Requesting a recommendation from the wrong person, at the wrong time or in the wrong way can do more harm than good. Since most people find it difficult to turn down a request for help, it's your responsibility to make sure that your potential referrer is well-equipped to recommend you and that he is the right person to do so.
The most common problem? Unfamiliarity. "Michelle -- er, Melissa -- is a close friend and trusted colleague" doesn't exactly make for a ringing endorsement. Before you ask someone for a referral, consider whether you know the person well enough and vice-versa. After all, the two of you are effectively agreeing to tie your professional reputations together. While you don't need to have worked alongside your advocate for years, 15 minutes of conversation at last night's Meetup isn't a sufficient personal history for a convincing recommendation.
Keep in mind that your contact may have her own reasons for agreeing to refer you that don't necessarily align with your goals. She may be taking advantage of a referral bonus offered by the company or may just have trouble saying no. Be sure your chosen referrer can describe with confidence your qualifications and job fit.
If a hiring manager senses a referral is a shot in the dark, not a genuine endorsement, he might be predisposed against you. And if your referrer is known for making indiscriminate recommendations, your résumé might not even get a look.
Whether your potential referrer is an old friend or a more recent contact, don't take the referral for granted. Frame your request with a brief explanation of why you think you'd be a good fit for the company, and send along your résumé.
If the person seems reluctant to vouch for you, take that as a no. And keep in mind that a polite refusal will be better for your career in the long run than an insincere yes, which usually leads to a half-hearted referral.
Once someone has agreed to refer you, it's your job to provide her with a substantial sense of how you might contribute to the company. Ask to buy your contact lunch to talk about your skills and experience as well as the culture of the firm and your working style. Approach it as you would a casual interview.
Soon after your meeting, send a thank-you note. By expressing your appreciation before you know the outcome of the referral, you demonstrate sincere gratitude for the person's time and effort on your behalf. Make sure she understands that you know the referral is no guarantee of an offer, or even an interview.
Once you're in
If you do get invited for an interview, don't assume that your referrer has provided extensive information about you. Instead, follow the interviewer's lead. If she asks about your history with the person, be honest. Don't exaggerate your relationship with the referrer or lean too hard on it. Now's the time to rely on your own skills and experience, not your connections.
A thoughtfully planned request for a referral can be one of your smartest career moves. But some of the strongest endorsements are the ones you don't ask for. That doesn't mean you should passively wait for one to come along. What it does mean is that you should focus on building up professional relationships, not just converting them into opportunities. So get out there and network in person, keep in touch with old colleagues, and let your friends know you're interested in a new position.