typewriter for references letters

You may think reference letters are slowly becoming a thing of the past, but for several reasons, they are more important than ever.

In an age where people change jobs on average every 2-5yrs, there is a good chance that your reference will not be at the same company by the time you need them to make that recommendation they promised you. And even if they haven’t moved on, many companies have put policies in place to prevent references being given out. With all of this going on, how can you make sure you have all of your references in place before you start looking for a job?

Why references are important

Your references are there not only to vouch that your experience is correct, but to also speak about you as an unbiased third-party. References are, to a degree, objective.  Whether you get this job or that job is of no consequence to them, other than perhaps wishing you well. This means that they are able to give a potential employer perspective on how you work, your interaction with colleagues, and provide detail on why they found you a great employee.

For example, imagine someone spending 15 minutes praising his/her own abilities. Now, imagine someone else spending 15 minutes praising a colleague’s professional capabilities.  I would bet that you would prefer the second situation; in general, it provides the greater amount of true data. References do the same thing. That’s what makes them important.

Requesting a reference before you need it

If you are planning to start looking for a new role, you should begin contacting the people that you want to use as references straight away. The idea is that as soon as you start applying and going on interviews, you have your references available already. Ideally you want to have 2-3 verbal references, as well as 3-5 letters of recommendation that you can use to differentiate yourself from the other candidates that are applying to the same role.

Start making it a habit of collecting written references before you move on – leaving school, moving between divisions in your company, changing towns, or starting at a new job. This way you will have a good stock of references to use at a moment’s notice. And keep in mind that you always want to make that request when your reference has the freshest, clearest memory of their work experience with you. Managers and Supervisors may move on while you still work at the company. Should they be retiring, or moving across the country, it can be incredibly difficult to get hold of these people again. Make sure to request a letter of recommendation before they leave; though they might have moved on, their experiences with you may still be relevant to your future career.

Capitalise on references in your social profile 

We already know that hiring managers are going to be checking your social media profiles, so this is also a perfect time to use reference sections on your profile to capitalise on that attention. After you make sure your profiles are polished and complete, you need to go hunting in your network for recommendations. The protocol is very similar to requesting written references – thoughtful and open-ended. Although they are much shorter, your references will still be taking time out of their day to help you. Don’t forget to thank them.

However, if you are mid-job-search and references are requested of you, don’t panic! There is an effective professional way to request a reference. Stay thoughtful when you make your request, and remember that the writer of your reference is doing you a favour.

Protocol for requesting a reference

  1. Don’t phrase your request as a yes or no question – Make sure to leave your request open-ended and friendly, no matter if you make your request in person or over email. Let them know that you are in need of a reference letter, and ask if it is something they would be able to assist you with. Phrase your question so the person feels they can truthfully accept or decline. You don’t want to force someone to accept when they won’t do you justice in the reference letter.
  2. If they accept, provide any information that will be helpful for them when they write the letter – Provide a copy of your resume; remind them of your sales figures and growth over the years; feel confident to express any skills or qualification you have that are important for your role. Giving them this information will help your reference know what areas they need to address in their letter.
  3. Help them tailor their response – For example, if you are applying for a customer service role but you have spent the past five years in an accounting role, make sure to have your reference speak to your customer service skills and not just your accounting skills. Ask that they mention any abilities you may have that they feel are relevant to the new position.
  4. Remember the small detail of saying thanks – Your reference has taken time out of the day to write a reference that praises your abilities and qualifications. Send them a hand written note, or take them a coffee. It will go a long way to convey your gratitude and will leave a great impression with them.

Elements to include

While a verbal reference and a letter of recommendation are very similar, there are a few elements that your written reference should definitely include:

  • The date it was written
  • The hiring manager’s name (if you know this), title, company name and address information of the company you will be interviewing with
  • Your full given name in the body of the recommendation
  • Length of time your reference has known you, as well as your work relationship (former boss, co-worker, etc.)
  • Strengths and key qualities that differentiate you from other candidates who might apply for the job (examples can help better explain these qualities)
  • Any other qualifications the recommender believes makes you the best person for the position (your education, work experience, etc.)
  • Reference’s name, signature and contact information (both email and phone) at the bottom of the letter

What if you can’t get a reference letter?

It is becoming more common for large corporate companies to bar employees from giving references – verbal or written. This is mostly related to legal liability. Simply put, the legislation means that all references need to be fair and accurate. Contrary to popular belief, an employer can still give a bad reference – as long as it is true. If someone was fired or had poor performance, as long as there is evidence (warning letters or reviews) it is acceptable to give a bad reference. That’s why it is so important to select your references thoughtfully.

Employment legislation in various countries has made it harder for employers to understand what they can or cannot say. So they err on the side of caution. This often results in a standard reference only confirming employment and dates worked. If this is the situation at your current company, there are a couple work-arounds for you.

  1. Speak to HR to confirm they will pass on details from your reviews – As reviews are not personal documents, your HR department will be able to speak to specifics of your reviews. If they are hesitant to pass on your review details, make sure they will confirm that you are in good standing with the company and eligible for rehire. Ensure your references are aware what your HR department will and won’t be able to confirm before they call.
  2. Ask them to provide a personal reference – Should a corporate policy be that references are not provided, ask your managers or supervisors if they will be able to provide a personal reference. This means that when they are called, they let your potential employer know that they are providing a reference from their personal perspective and not from a corporate perspective. That way it is their option of you and not the company’s opinion.
  3. Remind them that all referrals are confidential – Whatever your references say about you, it is a confidential conversation between them and your potential employer. Neither is legally bound to disclose what is said during that conversation. Just knowing this piece of information can put a lot of people at ease.

Written references can give you a competitive edge

Though written references are optional today, they could give you a competitive advantage you need when it comes to obtaining a position. Prospective employers often like to have variety in the references they obtain – previous Managers; a co-worker who trained you in your role; even a direct report of yours if you are a Supervisor or manager yourself. These different perspectives create a better overall idea of who you are and will be as an employee. The fact that they are not verbal references doesn’t make their contributions any less valuable when it comes to a recruiter or line manager considering you for a role.

The job market is always a competitive one. Making sure you have written and verbal references, available at any time, allows you to be prepared for your job hunt and helps you have one less thing to be concerned about when you do start the interview process. Follow the Scouts’ Motto and  ‘Be Prepared’.

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