Reference letters are not a thing of the past. On occasion, you may even need to request a written reference letter to keep on file. While this is not common practise, at some stage in your career it is bound to happen.
As a hiring manager, recruiter, or HR team, completing reference checks by phone is second nature. You know what to ask and how to probe deeper. You’ve locked down your listening skills, and you know not to make assumptions about what a reference will say in advance. However, a reference letter is an entirely different situation.
Reference letters tend to be perfectly crafted and can be utterly polite to the point of being deprived of character. They can allow references too long to think about their answers, and you often don’t get a straightforward reply. As long as you keep this in mind, you can request written references that allow the same level of insight that a telephone reference provides.
Keep these 5 tips in mind when requesting a reference letter, and it will be much easier to do in the future.
1. Make sure references are expecting your request
Before you send your request a reference letter, you need to make sure the recipients know it’s coming.
Make sure they know it is coming and when to expect it. More importantly, they are aware of the deadline to get the reference letter back to you. This will ensure you receive the reference letter in a timely manner.
2. Details to include
Whether you are sending an email or an actual letter (these do still happen), there are a few items you will want to include in your request.
Make sure that your request includes all your details. This includes your name, position, company name, and contact number. They all provide legitimacy to your request.
If you send a request by post, don’t forget to include the date the letter was sent and your return postal address. Just remember there is no guarantee your letter will get there or back. So think twice before trusting any unreliable postal services.
Finally, make sure to state why you are looking for a reference letter. Providing the “why” allows the reference to ensure the information they give you is in the right context.
3. Questions to ask
You need to ask reference questions that factor in both industry standards and technical specifications that the position may entail.
Start with straightforward introductory questions before asking more open-ended substantial ones. Any questions you ask should establish the candidates’ work history, skills, potential cultural fit, and ability to do the role you are considering them for.
Always make sure you aren’t asking inappropriate questions that infringe on employment standards.
4. Sample reference letter
If you have never written a request for a reference letter, you probably don’t know where to start. This sample below is a great place.
But don’t copy it word for word. Change up the details to match your tone of voice, and ensure the details are correct. You want to give enough information to get great replies that paint a picture of the employee you are considering hiring.
RE: Reference for Jane Smith
Dear Dave Jones,
Jane Smith has applied for a position with ABC Company as a Project Engineer. She has listed you as a reference for the time she worked at DEF Company. We are interested in getting more details about her time working with you. We would appreciate if you can answer the following questions to the best of your ability. The information you provide will help us decide whether we would like to hire her.
Please be aware that any information you provide is strictly confidential. Jane has signed a release authorising you to provide the information requested below. If you have any questions, please contact me on my number, or email, listed below.
In advance, thank you for taking the time to complete this reference letter for Jane. As there is a role we are currently considering Jane for, we would really appreciate a reply by 1 March at the latest.
What dates did she work at DEF Company and what was her position when you worked together?
In what capacity did you know or work with her? How long did you work together?
What were her main responsibilities and duties in her role?
Any areas of strength that will help her excel or areas of weakness that might influence her job perform?
Tell me about her most significant accomplishment while working with you?
Why did she leave her role with DEF Company?
Is there anything else you would like me to know about her?
Lastly, company policies aside, would you rehire her if you had the opportunity again?
Simon Simpson, General Manager, ABC Company
+1 000 000 0000 firstname.lastname@example.org
5. Always remember
Even though this is a written reference letter and not a telephone call, you are still taking up someone’s time. While you want to make sure you are getting all the information you need, err on the side of brevity in your questioning. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
We understand why references are so important
We know how essential references are. The information we gather during reference checks helps our clients make informed hiring decisions. This is why we make sure to get as many details as we possibly can. We love what we do, and would love to help with your next hire.