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How to ask for a job recommendation without blowing your cover

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With inflation eroding paychecks, more workers are looking for better-paying jobs — an undertaking that typically requires references from people who can vouch for your skills and character. 

Employers often ask that professional job references come from a person's boss or manager, as opposed to a friend or colleague. And although your immediate boss is probably more familiar with your abilities than anyone else, in most cases they're not the best person to ask for a reference. At best, such a request may result in an awkward conversation. At worst, it could lead to lingering consequences if things go awry, as well as tip off your employer that you're looking to leave.

For one, alerting your boss that you're considering jumping ship may not be wise at a time when some large employers are planning widespread layoffs in order to cut costs as the economy slows. That can put job seekers in a bind: How can you secure a reference without alerting your employer that you're considering a change, especially at a time when your boss may be eyeing job cuts?

Below, experts outline the best way to go about getting a positive recommendation without jeopardizing your job.

Find a good mentor

It's important for every employee to seek out a mentor who can guide them on topics ranging from how to navigate workplace conflict to outlining aspirations and achieving personal career goals. 

Consider skipping a level and ask a workplace connection who is a rank above your immediate boss, who might be less invested in your meeting immediate deadlines and more willing to guide you on long-term goals.

Start the process of forming a relationship with a mentor before you find yourself seeking new opportunities, executive coach Brooks Scott told CBS MoneyWatch.

"A lot of people wait to have these kinds of serious conversations, and the first time they connect with their mentor is to ask for a recommendation, but the first time going to your mentor to talk about career development shouldn't be asking for a reference," Scott said. "Talk about growing your career and things you can do professionally to gain experience and make yourself marketable. Then when you ask for a reference, it won't be out of left field."

Who should I ask?

Asking your direct manager to be your mentor — and the person you go to for a job reference — is risky, career experts say. 

"I don't think someone's manager is a good person to ask to be a mentor because they will be more focused on you accomplishing specific tasks," Scott said. "I always try to find mentors from a different department or at a higher level than my manager in the same department. Those people will be less attached to really wanting you to stay at your company, and they're more apt to help you."

Other career coaches say it's best to turn to co-workers or industry contacts when seeking a reference, rather than a supervisor at your current company.

"Ask someone else within the company you have a close working relationship with," said Yolanda Owens, a career coach with The Muse, a career website geared toward job seekers. "It can be a colleague or even a client who knows your work well and is trusted so they won't go back to your boss and tell them you're out there fishing around."

If a prospective employer insists that the recommendation come from your direct manager, say you will provide one — contingent on getting an offer, Owens added.

Should the reference be in writing?

It can't hurt to keep contacts from previous jobs or companies up to date in the event that you are laid off and suddenly find yourself looking for a new job. 

Try to keep in touch with old bosses, and make sure you have their latest contact information in case you're asked to provide such details in a job application.

"In today's market, where job security is not a given, it's good to have a contingency plan," Owens said. 

It can't hurt to have a recommendation in writing, either, though an old-fashioned reference letter typically isn't a requirement anymore.

"The general reference letter from a couple years ago may not be as relevant as we think it is. Now, it's more about cultivating that relationship. That's better than having a piece of paper on file," Scott said.

Hiring managers also know that candidates will only ask for referrals from bosses who they can count on to sing their praises, which diminishes their importance. 

Instead, people in charge of hiring like to do what's called "backchanneling." 

"They are looking at people you're connected to on social channels on LinkedIn who have worked with you professionally and asking them if they can talk to you and get feedback about your performance and how you show up to work," said Scott Dobroski of jobs website Indeed. 

He added, "In this whole world of reviews we're living in, you're more likely to trust a review from someone who is authentic and hasn't been put up to only say good things about you."

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