DerrJones Recruiting Solutions

Letter of Reference

Candidates love to present a letter of reference along with their resume. Typically, their former manager or even the company CEO will say glowing things about them, providing confirmation that they are no longer employed by the company through no fault of their own.

As a recruiter, I'm not impressed by a letter from your former boss. This letter cannot substitute for a personal phone call with the referee. Inevitably, the questions that I want to ask are not addressed in the letter provided. I can't probe, I can't ask for examples or specifics.

In all honesty, when I see an official letter of reference, warning lights start flashing. I'm not saying that this is always the case - and it may be very unfair - but a prepared letter makes me think that the candidate was terminated for cause, and this letter is a nice parting gift from the company in hopes that they won't be sued.

A Better Strategy

Rather than asking your former employer for a letter of reference, ask if you can use their name on your reference list. Many companies today have the HR police at the ready, telling you that the policy is name, rank and serial number other words, they will confirm that you were employed, the dates of employment, and whether you're eligible for rehire. Not exactly what you need when you're looking for a new job.

Approach your boss and a few of your peers and get their agreement to serve as a reference for you. This strategy is far better than getting a prepared letter, that likely has HR and Legal in the approval mix! Prospective employers are looking for honest assessments of your strengths. A letter of reference is not the answer.

Putting Employment References Together

You need to provide a cross section of people on your list who can speak to your accomplishments, and to how you interact with others in the organization. We need to know that you play nicely in the sandbox - or if you don't, how that impacts your ability to get the job done. Your references should be professional references - not personal references. We know that your best friend, your pastor, and your neighbor will likely say nice things about you. However, they do not see you in a work setting, and in the hiring process, that's really all that matters.

We provide a great tutorial on putting your job references together. Our Employment References section will give you complete instructions on who should be on your list, what information you need to provide, how to prepare your references, plus more.

You can also find an example of what a good reference list should look like in Resume References.

These resources will ensure that the good impression you've made on the interview carry through to the final details.

Letter of Reference...If You Must

We know that not everyone will take our advice! So, if you are really determined to provide prospective employers with a letter of reference, here are some guidelines you should follow:

  • Referees should be your direct manager and people above him/her.
  • Limit your numbers. Don't present more than 2-3 letters of reference.
  • The letter should outline the context for the reader - what your relationship with the referee is, how long you have worked together, etc.
  • Ask the referee to focus on one or two specific accomplishments, incorporating some metrics if possible. For example:

Sally was instrumental in turning a poorly performing team around. Under her leadership, the Widget Division increased sales by 30% to $28 million within 18 months. She is respected by her team as a great coach and mentor, and by the senior leadership team here at ABC Manufacturing as a gifted manager.

One final piece of advice:

Indicate the availability of the referee for follow up. This is probably the biggest issue with a letter of reference. The referee thinks the letter can take the place of a phone conversation regarding the candidate. If they are unwilling to field calls from potential employers, the hiring company should wonder what the problem is.

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