The ABCs Of Post-Reference Etiquette


It is September 2011 and my friend Charlotte, a recent graduate of Queen’s University’s Global Development Studies program, is searching for work.

She lands an interview with a think-tank organization in Ottawa and she requires three letters of reference. Charlotte asks her undergraduate thesis supervisor and two former employers to act as her referees. They all oblige.

By implementing the ABCs of post-reference etiquette, you will build – or continue to maintain – positive relationships with your former and current employers, mentors and professors.

Several weeks later, Charlotte lands the job and all is well in her world.

Fast forward to May 2012. Charlotte decides to check her Queen’s University email account – an account she has neglected since September. Charlotte comes across an email from her undergraduate thesis supervisor that was written in the fall of 2011. The professor asks for an update on the job situation.

Charlotte doesn’t know what to do, so she impulsively sends her former professor an email apologizing for being inattentive to her university email account. She also lets her professor know that she has received the job in Ottawa.

As Charlotte recounted this story to me, I held back judgment as best as I could. From my perspective, Charlotte’s email exchange displays a lack of thoughtful etiquette. My advice to her was as follows:

Since we cannot go back in time, if I was you, I would have emailed the professor from my current email account (i.e., the one I check most regularly) to provide her with an update on my job and life in general. I would not mention the email from September. I would thank her again for playing such an important role in the job process and tell her how much I enjoy the work.

After telling my friend how I would’ve responded, I also reminded her how important it is to maintain (loose) ties with those who act as our referees. You never know when you might need to network with them again in the future.

In an effort to help others avoid making the same innocuous mistake, I have developed the ABCs of post-reference etiquette:

Appreciate that this person is doing YOU a favour

An effective guiding principle to uphold is the attitude that no one owes you anything.

Sure, unofficially an employer or professor is somewhat obliged to act as a referee from time to time. However, the extent of effort he or she goes through on your behalf is another story altogether.

By being appreciative of the fact that referees (in most cases) are doing you favours ultimately will enrich your post-reference interaction.

Be prompt in sending a thank you letter (or email)

Once you know that your referees have been contacted (or alternatively, once the deadline for a letter of reference has passed), send each referee individual “thank you” emails. Make sure to keep the email concise. An effective way to sign off is by writing, “I’ll be sure to let you know the outcome as soon I know. Many thanks once again, Katie.”

Also, depending on how well I know the referee, I may even choose to send him or her a “thank you” card in the mail. This gesture of writing and mailing a handwritten card demonstrates sincere gratitude. It will continue to build your professional relationship and further cement your positive reputation with that person.

Continue communication post job offer (or lack of job offer)

Once you receive a job offer, be sure to once again send your referees individual emails with the positive update. Make sure to express your gratitude yet again.

If you don’t receive a job offer, still shoot off a positive email. Write something along the lines of, “Unfortunately I didn’t receive a job offer. Regardless, I am very appreciative of you taking the time to act as a referee on my behalf. Thank you once again.”

By implementing the ABCs of post-reference etiquette, you will build – or continue to maintain – positive relationships with your former and current employers, mentors and professors. And that definitely is a win-win situation!

Photo credit: thank you by amy gizienski on Flickr
About the author

Katie Palmer is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, where she completed an MA in Geography and a BA in Gender Studies and Geography. She spent six months working in the Philippines at a migrant rights’ non-profit organization. She has written extensively on the issue of child sex tourism in Southeast Asia for outlets such as the WIP, Herizons, and the University of Toronto Magazine. She currently works as a policy analyst with the Government of Ontario in the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.