What is a Letter of Reference
If you believe that a letter of reference, or reference letter, is just a note from someone saying you’re a good employee, you’re only half right. Reference letters do indeed tell a new potential employer that you’re a good hire, but they also show that same employer that the person who wrote that letter is worth listening to. With that in mind, should you ever be called on to write a reference letter, or if you’re asking someone to write one for you, you’ll want to make sure it’s done right.
Tips for Writing a Letter of Reference
Reference letters are not rocket science, and they’re not a thesis paper, but they hold a long, esteemed position in the hiring world. Not having one might not cost you a job, but having one will certainly help. So whether you’re writing or receiving, keep these tips in mind:
- Date the letter
- Include a greeting
- The writer of the letter of reference (called a “referee”) must state how they are acquainted with the person being referred
- Talk about the person being referred
- Invite the reader to contact you (the referee) with additional questions if necessary
- Use business-appropriate language but it doesn’t have to be too formal
There are also a few warning tips to keep in mind:
- Do not ask for a reference letter from someone who hasn’t worked with you
- Make sure the reference letter is current (less than 5 years)
- Never write a reference letter for someone you aren’t certain about (remember, it’s your reputation as well!)
How to Write a Good Letter of Reference
At the top of every reference letter should be the date the letter was written. In some situations the letter of reference is written in response to a request for it, while in others it is written to be used later. In either case, the date is important so that the person reading it knows it’s current. A 10-year-old reference letter doesn’t carry much weight.
The greeting comes next. If the reference letter has been requested, the greeting should be directed to the person the letter is going to, such as “Dear Ms. Jones” or “Dear Mr. Smith.” For the generic reference letter written to be used later, the greeting can be the more generic “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam.”
The first paragraph of the reference letter is the one that carries the most weight. This is because it provides the authority for the letter. It should say who the referee is and their relationship to the one they’re referencing. Since most of these letters are written by former supervisors, it might read like the following:
“My name is David Sanders and I am the vice president of manufacturing at Doohickey Corporation. I was Walter White’s supervisor at Doohickey for 3 years, during which time he reported directly to me.”
Now we can move into the substance of the letter of reference in which the referee highlights the qualities that made Walter such a great employee. Words and phrases that get attention include “showed initiative,” “reliable,” “helpful,” and “able to count on.” Other things worth mentioning are attendance, timeliness, and good relationships with others. For Walter White, the body of his reference letter might read something like:
“During the time Mr. White worked under my supervision, I found him to be a very reliable and conscientious employee. Doohickey Corporation is a manufacturing company and it is imperative to our business to meet production quotas while maintaining high quality. I could always depend on Mr. White to be at the plant on time each and every day to do his part. When we experienced a quality control issue, Mr. White took the initiative on the investigation and was able to help our inspection team determine and rectify the cause. He was also respected and liked by his peers, so that there was nothing but praise when he was promoted to manufacturing manager, a position in which he excelled in all aspects.”
The last part of the letter will then conclude with the actual recommendation and inviting the person to contact the referee with any future questions. For Walter, it would look something like this:
“I am happy to recommend Walter White to you with no reservations. I believe he will be a great employee and addition to your company. Should you require any more information or have further questions, please feel free to contact me anytime.”
The referee then signs the letter with something like “Sincerely,” and either hands it to Walter White to use at his next job interview or sends it directly to the person asking for it.
A Few Extra Tips for Letters of Reference
In many cases, a letter of reference will substitute for a direct call for a reference. So these are really very important documents when it comes to job seeking. Some extra things to keep in mind:
- Even if the reference letter is requested for a specific job to a specific person, ask for a generic one as well with the “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam” greeting. And have copies in case you ever need to send out more than one. Some companies have rules that they cannot provide any more than your dates of employment, salary, and job title. The reference letter goes beyond that, so get it if you can.
- Some companies prohibit current employees from writing reference letters, so if your supervisor or another co-worker (managerial level or above) is leaving the company, ask them to write you a reference letter. Unless you’re the reason your supervisor is leaving, outgoing supervisors are almost always willing to write one.
- If you can, get the reference letter on company letterhead. It just looks better.
- If you were promoted, have that in the letter. It always looks better to show growth in a job.
- If you are asking for the letter, provide your referee with a template or sample to work from. This way you can already include areas you want to highlight such as attendance, reliability, or a special project your were part of. Likewise, if someone is asking you for one, ask them what they’d like to have in it for the same reasons.
- And do proofread it, both one you’re writing and one you’re receiving. Because even if the words are glowing, it will be far less impactful if there are serious spelling or grammatical errors in it.
A letter of reference is a valuable item to have for a job seeker. When it is written well, it speaks volumes about the referee and the referred. That can often be the difference between a letter indicating you weren’t chosen and one that says, “Congratulations!”