6 expressions to avoid when asking for a referral

These common phrases can make you seem unsure of yourself—or even entitled.

6 expressions to avoid when asking for a referral
[Photo: FotoDuets/iStock]

It’s no secret that asking others to help you get a job is a smart move. People in high places are often glad to assist if they can. In fact, Steve Jobs said no one ever turned him down when he asked for help. At the tender age of 12, he cold called founder of Hewlett-Packard Bill Hewlett, and this led to a summer job at HP.


The first step is to summon the bravery to ask. There are tons of people you can reach out to for career help—executives, your boss, mentors, friends, family acquaintances, or complete strangers. In that meeting or phone call, you’ll want to be very specific about what you’re hoping to get from that person. With that in mind, these are six fuzzy statements to avoid when you ask for that referral:

1. I want to pick your brain

This it just a gross expression. But beyond that, it also can seem as though you don’t have a clear purpose. If I say, “I want to pick your brain,” essentially I’m saying “I hope you have some insights that I don’t have. I’m looking for references, or jobs, or ideas, or . . . well, you name it.”

2. Can I have 20 minutes of your time to chat?

Here is another expression to avoid if you are approaching someone for help.

Anytime you ask someone for a “chat,” you’re saying, “This isn’t necessarily important, and the conversation won’t necessarily have a direction.” You may be using the word “chat” because you don’t want to sound too pushy, but if you’re asking a busy person for help—and most influential people are busy—a desire to chat likely won’t go down well.

3. You have lots of contacts, can you share them with me? 

When you say this to someone, it’s as if you are asking them to open their address book and give you all the names that are in it. People are generally cautious about giving you more than a few names. Their contacts are precious, and they will want to know that if they give you a name, you will follow up with that individual and do so with discretion. Asking for “lots” of contacts makes it sound like you will not treat them with care.

Instead, say exactly who you’d like to talk to—for example, an executive in a particular retail chain, or the head of HR for a financial institution, or someone who works for a specific company. Choose a name or title that will get you inside the firm you are interested in.


4. You know the industry well. Can you give me some names?

Similarly, it’s presumptuous to ask someone for industry-wide contacts. Anyone who is well-endowed with leads in an industry will want to know that you are focused in your search and you have certain people or titles in mind. Share these specifics with your listener and give some background on why you wish to speak to these individuals.

This will enable you to show that you’ve done your homework, and there is a specific connection you want to make. You’re likely to impress your listener, who is more likely to share her knowledge with you.

5. I need your help getting a job

This phrase tests poorly because it’s far too vague. It’s also not great because the word “need” tends to suggest that you are without resources—not a great look when you’re job searching. Even though you may need a job, or a reference, there are better ways to state that. For example, “I would appreciate your help,” or “I would love to have a reference from you.” Positive language will makes a huge difference in the way people perceive you.

6. I’ve sent out tons of letters, and no one replies

This expression, along with others like “I can’t seem to get that next career move,” or “It’s been tough slogging,” gives people the idea that you are failing at a goal you have. Why do that? Never bad-mouth yourself.

Instead, be very precise about your goals and the steps you have taken. Emphasize the positive, and even though you may have had a tough time getting interviews, don’t let on that this has been your trajectory. People want to associate themselves with winners, so show that you’re on the road to winning that next position.


About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She also recently established EQUOS Corp., a company focused on delivering emotional intelligence training to the fitness, medical, and business sectors