In the November 19, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants help writing a recommendation letter.
I am writing a letter of recommendation for a co-worker who is interviewing for a new job. It’s sort of a quid pro quo situation. Both he and I are somewhat unsure of how to write one, especially when doing it for a co-worker.
I have looked online, but most of the advice is for a supervisor, not a peer. I don’t supervise him; I just collaborate with him occasionally. I think he’s an excellent worker, but I’m not sure how to write about it in a letter. I want to make sure I’m doing it correctly. I’ve never had the opportunity to write — or even to see — a real letter of recommendation before. Can you help me? Do you have a template? What’s the magic in a letter of recommendation?
Recommendations are a powerful part of hiring and job hunting, but few people know how to use them effectively. The worst type of recommendation is the insincere, canned one.
A recommendation must be honest
I’m glad you think highly of your co-worker, because if you didn’t, I’d advise you not to write a recommendation. The power of recommendations lies in honesty. No one should feel obligated to recommend anyone else.
There is nothing wrong with saying to someone, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I could write you the recommendation you’d need to get the job you want.” If that seems rude, consider that a proper recommendation puts your neck on the line. It affects your reputation. If the person you recommend blows it, you will look bad and your reputation may be damaged in your professional community. And that’s as it should be, or the practice of making recommendations becomes worthless.
Recommendations create reputations
On the other hand, a carefully considered recommendation that results in a superlative hire reflects very well on the person doing the recommending. Credible, repeat recommendations that result in great hires can elevate your reputation to star status in your field, making you a go-to person for hiring referrals. That’s the best place to be when you go job hunting yourself.
But let’s get on to your situation.
Your personal guarantee
Producing a written recommendation for a co-worker is no different from doing one for someone you supervise. In both cases, remember that your main purpose is to provide a personal endorsement. A recommendation (or a reference) is a personal guarantee that the person you recommend is good at what they do: they are reliable, honest, and worthy of the job in question.
Yes, that’s serious stuff. That’s why we don’t write recommendations for just anyone, or just to be polite and friendly.
(For a special approach, see Referrals: How to gift someone a job and why.)
Get an interview
Your objective in writing a recommendation is to get the employer to interview your subject. That means your comments must be relevant and compelling, which in turn means your recommendation must fit the specific job. If the candidate can’t explain what the job is all about, then you can’t and shouldn’t write the letter.
Canned comments or a stiff, formal letter will not get anyone a job interview. My advice is to write simply, naturally, and casually. Avoid two-dollar words and phrases. Be friendly, blunt and brief.
What to write
Don’t follow a format. Just write naturally, covering a few key topics:
- Who are you? What do you know or do that makes your comments relevant and compelling? You might be an expert in the work in question. Provide a very brief summary of yourself in order to establish your credibility.
- How do you know the person? Do you know his work? Did he work for you, or with you?
- What’s his work ethic? Is he self-motivated, or does he require close supervision?
- What are his relevant skills and knowledge? Be specific.
- How does the person stand out? Why should the employer drop everything and interview him?
- What benefit do you think the person would bring to the employer? Can you offer any proof?
Don’t worry about templates. Don’t regurgitate someone else’s words. If you need a format, pretend you’re having lunch with the employer. Write what you would say. Be honest, or don’t provide the recommendation.
As you wrap up your letter, make the one statement the reader is looking for: a clear endorsement. Use words that you are comfortable with. For example:
“I wholeheartedly recommend John as a smart, reliable worker who delivers what he promises.”
Finally, make the statement that says more than any other:
“If I were a manager, I’d hire Karen in a minute. As a co-worker, I hope I can work with her again.”
That’s the best endorsement in the world.
What’s better than a recommendation?
There’s something much more powerful you can do. Wait a day or two after sending the recommendation, then call the employer to make sure they received it. Reiterate your main message: “I’d hire John/Karen myself if I could.” This call is so unusual that it will always get the employer’s attention. Be careful, of course, not to seem like you’re trying to exercise undue influence. (See also The Preemptive Reference — it’s better than a recommendation.)
Recommendations are an important way of meeting other people in your industry and establishing a good reputation. (Networking, anyone?) That’s why it’s important to be selective about whom you give a recommendation. Recommendations and references are the glue that makes an industry stick together.
Do you recommendations even matter any more? What makes them work? What’s the best recommendation you’ve ever gotten (or given)? How do you advise this reader?