Maximizing Letters of Recommendation
Although letters of
recommendation will not secure you a job, they are a very important
part of the process. They are valuable to employers when many
candidates have very similar qualifications. It is in these
situations that the letters of recommendation add valuable
information to your profile that your resume is not capable of
So, what makes one letter of recommendation stronger than another?
The person writing the letter is very important. The reference's
position and title are key as well as the context of your
relationship with them. If you reported to them, then that is a much
stronger recommendation than one from a peer. By far the most
valuable letters of recommendation come from the people to whom you
You should also consider whether
the letters are serving their purpose any longer. For example, once you have
been employed, recommendations from teachers or professors no longer carry
value. Likewise, letters written from several years ago do not accurately
reflect your current abilities.
Once you have identified the best authors, now you must evaluate the value
of their content. The more specific the statements made the better. A strong
letter of recommendation does not just state what a nice person you are. A
strong letter of recommendation will state specifically how uniquely
talented you are for the position you are pursuing. Ideally the information
provided will include: your personal characteristics, subject knowledge,
skill set, specific accomplishments and areas of special strength.
Truth be told, the use of letters of recommendation is fast becoming passé.
The fact is that the concept of writing letters of recommendation started
back in the time when communication was extremely difficult and employers
viewed employees as kin. Terry Devlin, Vice President, Counseling for Career
Management International states, "They should only be provided upon the
request of the employer. Most employers accept letters of recommendation
politely, and ignore them. After all, the candidate is the provider of the
letters, and as such, can ensure only the most glowing are presented. Going
to an interview armed with letters of recommendation may well brand a person
as naive, and serve to eliminate the candidate from consideration."
This makes the use references in your job search increasingly important.
Providing letters of recommendation is simply not enough. A potential
employer is going to call your references and the people to whom reported in
order to get a better understanding of your abilities and qualifications.
Likewise, the authors of your letters of recommendation are still likely to
be called. This is done as a means of uncovering fraud. Is the letter
authentic or did the employee write it themselves? Therefore, the verbal
statement provided by these authors is critical, or the letter loses all
value and is actually harmful as it appears fraudulent.
About the author: Terra L. Dourlain is a Career Transition Specialist and
Executive Career Coach with an extensive background in employee training and
Résumés Win Interviews,
References Win Job Offers
Inquiring minds want to know,
and no minds are more inquiring than those about to hire you. Rest assured,
you will be investigated. As a rule of thumb, the better the job and the
higher the pay, the tougher the screening process. If you are up for a good
job at a visible company, your references and past employers will be checked
in great detail. Your list of references is simply the beginning of the
investigation a prospective employer will conduct.
When a prospective employer has completed the first round of
interviews and you are among the top candidates, its next logical
step is to check your references and interview those individuals to
whom you reported. Are you certain these individuals will seal the
deal for you, or will they blow it away? If you are like most
people, you probably haven't given your references much thought.
Instead, you have focused on your résumé, interviewing skills,
networking, and what to wear to the interview. Now the focus shifts.
Your biggest concern should be
the quality of your references and recommendations from past employers,
because they can make or break your chances. About half of all references
that get checked range from mediocre to poor, so it is very possible that
the great job you lost out on at the last moment had nothing to do with your
skill level. It could have had more to do with what a reference or past
employer said about you. So, if you are concerned that someone, somewhere,
might be giving you a bum rap, you are probably right. That's a frightening
scenario when your livelihood is at stake.
Here is a sampling of the damaging comments HR people and line managers hear
when they check references:
"Our company policy
prohibits us saying anything. We can only verify dates of employment and
title." Then the reference goes on to say something like, "Check his
references very, very carefully."
"Are you certain he
gave my name as a reference?"
"After we settle our
"Let me see what the
paperwork says I am able to give out regarding _______."
"Is he still in this
References and past employers
won't call and warn you that they are not going to be complimentary. The
reference situation is ever changing and therefore very volatile because of
shifting company policies (not that many employees choose to follow them
anyway), new employees in HR departments, new laws governing references, and
company liability for giving references.
You are well advised to
take more control of your career momentum by finding out what every
potential reference will say about you. If the odds hold, as they will,
those references will range from stellar to negative; yet when you know what
someone is going to say about you, you can pass on your best references with
greater confidence. You will also have the opportunity to stop references
from saying things that are not true or inaccurate.
Increasing Your Chances of a Good Reference.
Here are some general rules of thumb to maximize the tone and accuracy of
Make sure your
records are correct.
Occasionally an interviewee looks bad because his former HR department
did not have the same job date and title information in his file as he
did on his résumé. Data entry or communications errors are not unusual,
so check with your HR department to ensure that their records correspond
to yours. Conflicting data will be perceived as a big negative to a
Maintain active and
positive relationships with your references.
Stay in touch over the phone or over coffee. Keep the reference
up-to-date about your progress, and make sure you have the most
up-to-date information about them. If the reference's title (or name)
has changed, or if they've left their position and you've provided old
information to the prospective employer, it doesn't look good.
Advise a reference
about an important opportunity.
To avoid burning out your references, you don't need to call about every
single job opportunity. However, if a particular position is very
important to you, call the reference and give them details about what
the company may be looking for.
Even though you've given the senior vice president's name as a
reference, the prospective employer may resort to calling the director
you reported to because she can't reach the senior VP. Even though you
have not given that person's name as a reference, it is on the
application that you probably filled out. You may want to advise your
former boss about the potential for a reference check and explain what
the company is looking for.
Know your company's
Although federal law restricts reference information, some states now
allow more extensive disclosure. Know which regulations and policies
govern your company. In addition, be aware that some employees will
break company policy. Make sure that works in your favor by checking
with references to gain an understanding of what they might say.
Don't rely on
relatives or letters of recommendation.
You are well advised not to let Uncle John regale a prospective employer
about your antics as a youth. Also, although letters of recommendation
can be helpful, information such as titles and even names can change
over time. Make sure that the information on your letter of
recommendation is correct by contacting the reference periodically.
If you want help in providing good references or if you find that you
are losing too many opportunities after several interviews with an
organization, you might want to commission a professional
reference-checking service. Check to ensure that the service has the
professional and legal personnel that can develop a strategic use of
your references. Typical service fees range from $59 to $99 per
reference checked, depending on level of job position being sought.