When magical nanny Mary Poppins sought employment at the Banks household, Mrs. Banks asked her for her references.
“I make it a rule never to give references,” she replied firmly, and that was that.
Unfortunately most of us don’t have magic. We are stuck in the workday world where good references are essential to finding the best jobs. Whether you are just hanging up your shiny new diploma, or seeking a career change in mid-life you need to know what references and letters of recommendation are and do.
Often these two terms are used interchangeably. However, a reference is usually someone an employer calls and interviews after receiving your application; a letter of recommendation is included with your application. The purpose, though, is the same. You want people to say nice things about you to your prospective employer.
Who’s Your Daddy? Requesting Recommendations
Whom should you ask? Unless you are working in your family’s business, relatives are out. Would be you inclined to take a glowing report of a person’s work at face value, if you knew it was written by his or her brother? New graduates should consider asking professors, advisors, coaches and, if you have participated at all in community life, a local leader you have worked with. (You will need more than one letter.) Those already on the job should talk to bosses, supervisors and co-workers. If you need someone to attest to your personal character (honesty, respect, fair dealing, etc.) you might contact your clergyman, but the main commendations should concern your business savvy and work habits.
How do you approach potential “recommenders”? That depends on your personal style. Many take the direct approach. At lunch or during a lull, they simply walk up to the persons and ask; or they might call the person on the phone. This way you get your answer right away and know how many more people you need to contact.
Others prefer to ask indirectly by writing or email. This gives the person a chance to think about the query and take time to decide. If a person turns you down, don’t fret. As the adage goes, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. You would rather a person that doesn’t want to recommend you say nothing.
What Did You Say? Letter Content
You should have between three and five “recommenders.” But the work is not finished there. At one time an applicant left the words to the writer. As long as it was positive, it would do the trick. In today’s competitive world, however, nothing can be left to chance. Each writer must comment on a different aspect of your personality and work performance. Your boss might talk about your go-getter attitude and leadership skills; a coworker might be more familiar with your creative flair and attention to detail. A professor might comment on your enthusiasm for academic work and your ability to meet deadlines. Discuss your strengths and weaknesses with those you have approached. Mention your career goals and areas where you are looking forward to continued growth. Suggest specific examples.
Frankly this is not the time for balance. “So-and-so is very creative, but lacks leadership skills” won’t do. Letters must be positive, wholeheartedly so, if possible. Everyone has positive traits. That’s what your letters should talk about. There must not be any dishonesty. The employer will find out soon enough if you exaggerated your ability work under pressure, or fudged on how well you know spreadsheet. You will lose your job and finding another will be difficult to impossible.
What Do You Say?
Some employers want recommendations posted directly to them. Others take the letters attached to the application. If you are given the letters personally, be sure to make copies. A few days after a person has agreed to recommend you, send them a thank-note. If you get the job write to inform them and thank them again.
Letters must be positive, specific and honest. If you are truly qualified for the job you want, that shouldn’t be hard. If you have made a good impression in the classroom or on the job, your letter-writers will be glad to see you succeed.
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