In the November 19, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants help writing a recommendation letter.

Question

recommendationI 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?

Nick’s Reply

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.

Endorse

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?

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19 Comments
  1. I’ve had two people use me as references in my life, neither of who gave me a heads up, and I was blind sided too. I’ve known people who use their fraternity brothers, family members, and pals to give trumped up references. It’s no wonder few employers contact references.

  2. When hiring, I never asked for references before doing the interview – with the exception that when the candidate was a student, I’d call the professor to ask where the student stood amongst all his or her students. I was interviewing grad students, so there was more of a connection there than an undergrad just in a class. I usually knew the professors well enough that I’d get an honest answer.

    When I do a reference – and I’ve been successful in that the people got hired – I did all the stuff you recommend – great list – but also gave some specific (and non-proprietary) examples of how the candidate did the job for us. I did more of this after I retired so that I was no longer constrained by the name rank and serial number rule my company had for references.

  3. At the bottom of your LinkedIn profile is a space for recommendations. I would suggest that the person place his/her recommendation there so that it becomes readily available. In one paragraph, the giver says how they feel about the recipient.

    • I take your point, but public recommendations are (1) generic, not referenced to a specific upcoming job and, well, (2) public. There’s a meaningful cachet to a personal recommendation delivered one-on-one. But LinkedIn is better than nothing.

  4. Nick, you’re right: Honesty/sincerity is the highest priority here. Vying for that top slot is relevance.

    Letters of recommendation / endorsement serve multiple purposes. They can provide evidence of a candidate’s cultural fit: “She’s great at what she does” or “He is reliable and personable” will add some perceived value to the candidate’s cause. They can also demonstrate mastery of specific hard skill sets. Try this sentence about the candidate’s accomplishments in an employer’s specific area of need: “As Project Manager, he turned around a failing project for us, completing it on time and within budget, and cemented a customer relationship for future collaborations.” That’s tangible value, and it adds credibility both to the candidate and to the recommender. I hope that helps your reader.

    • @Debra: That’s the idea! My rule is, give the subject of your recommendation a real boost, but only if you could honestly defend it if pressed.

  5. I solicit recommendations from leadership at current employers right after every major project or milestone or atta-boy moment. That’s when the positive energy emotions are real and come through in the letters. I ask for a recommendation from peers and leaders 1-2 levels up, and always include a broad spectrum of job title from those recommending. I send them an email highlighting what Ive done and how it positively impacted them. If Engineering I go technical. If HR I note how they’ll get to use the new X to train people or recruit. If Finance I spell out the savings. These come back to me as emails with bullet points of my great job. Then I remove the date and email addresses, just name, title, subject (Great Job on Project-X!! or Recommendation).

    When my resume package goes to an employer it includes 4-6 pages of recommendations from Engineers, Foremen, InfoSec, Infrastructure, Admin, and especially Finance and Compliance. Nothing is more compelling than a letter from the CFO or Director of Finance stating that I finished my project on time and under/on budget.

    I stand out from the crowd when my PDF or resume stack of paper comes with those reco’s. If ever checked, they remember writing those recommendations and how positive the feeling was at the time (not when I left). I’m still using references from 2 jobs ago, and collecting new ones as I go.

    The key is, COLLECT RECOMMENDATIONS AS YOU GO, FRESH, after a big win. Nobody wants to write one for someone who has left the org and is no longer part of their lives.

    Lastly, BRING THESE TO THE INTERVIEW and place them ON TOP of your resume. You’ll stand out as a true winner.

    I also starve myself before a job interview for a few weeks, go in leaner, meaner, suit fitting smarter physically HUNGRY for the job. Not sure if there’s a phenomenal component to it, surely a psychological component in your mind, a perception component in theirheads that you’re going to hunt for them to feed yourself, but… its worked EVERY time. That’s my own little trick. -Cheers

    • @KJF: Great bunch of tips! You demonstrate the importance of being THOUGHTFUL about how to approach a job search.

      “Priming” the recommender like you do is key. That is, when you request the recommendation, outline what the project was, how you delivered on it and how it paid off for them. (Priming is different from suggesting what they ought to say!) Without writing the thing for them, you’ve primed them to remember the detail which, as you note, they will then likely use in their letter.

      The other key you hint at is that a “stack” of such letters works much better than just one or two. It just begs the employer to contact a few to check them out — or it overwhelms them with positive data.

      Thanks for sharing this! (And I think you’ve also got something with your lean-and-hungry posture!)

      • “Phenomenal” was supposed to read “pheromonal” but I couldn’t figure out the edit.

    • Awesome suggestion, KJF – collect recs directly after a big win. Question: While the positive energy is flowing, do your recommenders go on and on in their praise of your good work? How do you ensure that the recommendations are reasonably short and focused?

      • “Priming” them with bullet points helps, as Nick said. You can always delete overly flowy language from a recommendation; just don’t ever inflate it, lest your references be checked and your inflation be not recognized by El Recommendor.

        • Excellent. Thanks! I also appreciate Nick’s reminder that these great comments may result in calls to the recommenders from the potential employer. With that in mind, do you also ask these “fans” if they are willing to respond when employers call to verify?

  6. The only suggestion I have, and slightly contrary to Nick’s great advice, is to start the letter off with that strong statement of recommendation. Many hiring managers are extremely busy and they do not read through a long-is letter (I try to keep mine to one page for that reason). And thank you, KJF, for the advice to get the recommendation letter right after success. Wish I had done that in my last job especially, before the company fell apart.OTOH, wasn’t aware of how bad it had gotten until the C had hit the fan.

    A question for Nick and the group: if you did not have a good relationship with a supervisor, and do not ask for a letter of reference from them because of it, how do you explain if a hiring manager asks?

    Great topic, thank you as always!

    • @TIR: If someone asks, be ready to recite a short list of your accomplishments for that manager anyway. But don’t hesitate to very briefly explain that “as sometimes happens, a manager and employee don’t click in terms of style and personality.” Everyone knows that. Sometimes we have to remind them. And have backups — others (even co-workers) who will explain that. “Two members of my team, A and B, would tell you about my performance. Would you like their names and contact info?” (Of course, get permission from A and B first!)

  7. When I was in a position of hiring, I asked the applicant after our interview for a list of 3-5 people who would give the applicant a recommendation. Sometimes this took the applicant by surprise. Other times the applicant could not give me a single source for a recommendation. Needless to say if the applicant couldn’t give me at least one source to contact, that individual did not get hired. When I contacted the sources given to me, I specifically asked that person about things the applicant said in the interview. There were a couple of times what the source stated did not match up with what the applicant said during the interview. Again, the applicant did not get the position. I never read recommendations given to me during an interview or sent with an application. I wanted to speak with the recommender. It proved valuable to listen to their tone of voice about the applicant, which factored into the hiring process.
    In addition when I went out on my own, I used reliable contacts as sources of recommendation for prospects I wanted as clients. I gave each prospective company a list of 3-5 persons they could contact and encouraged them to do so. Later I contacted my recommenders to find out if the prospect indeed contacted them. 80% of the time the prospects did and each one of these became a client. The contact with my recommender established a foundation for a business relationship and guidepost for how I would interact with the new client. This approach got me clients easier and faster than competitors who chose other methods.

  8. “I never read recommendations given to me during an interview or sent with an application. I wanted to speak with the recommender. It proved valuable to listen to their tone of voice about the applicant, which factored into the hiring process.”

    It’s more but necessary work!

  9. I had three temps working with me on a project, one of whom was excellent. After the project was completed, I let the other two temps go, and held onto the excellent one for as long as I could.

    Finally, I had to say goodbye, as I could not open up a spot for him. The least I could do was send him out the door with a good recommendation.

    Which is what I did.

    Some time had passed–how much, I can’t remember. The receptionist, trained not to bother me with superfluous applicants, caught me as I entered the office one day. She handed me an application, smiled, and said, “I think you might to look at this one.” I took a quick look, saw the attached letter of recommendation, smiled back at her and said: “Guess I’d better hire this one. I’m the one who recommended him.”

    I was able to hire him this time as a permanent employee.

    Sometimes, letters of recommendation work.

  10. Been asked often over the years, as prior boss, as colleague/co-worker, peer, and sometimes less e.g.
    acquaintance. The latter I decline. Don’t know enough about them.
    As many have said, I’m honest. I ask the requester for the who, for what role etc. to make sure I’m
    even qualified to be useful and for the needed context…. Then I’d tell them what I’ll
    say. Which sometimes negates the request.

    As a recruiter, I’ve done much reference checking as I believe in their value. I think peer/co-worker
    mutual-respect references are special. People one works with offer different insights from bosses. Which I’ve found useful. Maybe it’s just me, but co-workers often provided insights the candidate themselves omitted in their discussions, e.g. achievements they discounted as somewhat trivial, forgotten projects, but in the eyes of their co-workers were noteworthy or which they recalled as home run hits.

    As to what one is to say & in what format…you’ll find some insights in asking yourself, what did you or do you expect from people you’ve worked with? Overall and/or project specific.

    I don’t think anyone mentioned…how references are viewed on the hiring side? In my experience…they fall into 2 views. 1) those who believe they are useful for making a hiring decision & seek them out, and 2) Those who think they are of little value because “Of course the reference will give a good report, that’s why they were chosen”. Most managers I’ve worked with don’t request them or decline them.

    As an inside recruiter I was a believer and would make reference calls and provide feedback to the hiring managers, frankly whether they wanted them or not. I’d also broker a con call/meeting between references and the hiring managers, particularly when technical know how as a big factor. or I felt
    strongly that they needed to talk directly to the person. This was a good approach for skeptics.

  11. The letter of recommendation succeeds in controlling an employee by denying that employee this courtesy. The letter’s use is a bit of cargo cult science.

    In medical school the use of a letter of recommendation as a mechanism of control is especially true. It’s essentially, “You want my letter of recommendation to get into that residency specialization? Then, dear resident, you must pick up my dry cleaning.”

    Here is my personal anecdote:

    I recall calling up a physics faculty member that I worked with for seven years. When he picked up the phone, we caught up for a bit, and then I asked him for a letter of recommendation for a job. The faculty member had written a letter previously, so I did not think it would be a problem.

    His response was, “What have you done for us lately?”

    My first thought was, “Wow, did you just say that?” Being a quick wit, I responded, “Your institution has been using my copyright material without my permission for quite some time.”

    His response, “I thought we stopped doing that.”

    I replied, “Not according to Google search.”

    The faculty member wrote me a letter, but I didn’t use it. I recommend that you avoid using someone as a reference if they hesitate in the least.

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