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How to Write a Reference Letter

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Most of us, in course of applying for jobs, will have to provide references to prospective employers at some point. For those of us who do not manage or employ staff, it’s rarer that we’ll be asked to write a reference letter in a professional capacity. Nevertheless, it can happen, and while it can seem daunting at first, sticking to a few guidelines should make it a relatively painless experience.

First things first, you need to decide if you are the right person to be writing this reference letter. Not only should you know the subject of the reference quite well, but your working relationship with them should also be relatively benign. In some places, such as here in the UK, you can’t actually give a bad reference, so if you can’t stand the sight of Bob from accounts, despite the fact he never actually reported to you directly, he might be better off getting somebody else to write his reference letter. Stick to direct employees or subordinates, and the job should be much easier.

Next, you have to decide what details to provide in the reference letter. This is relatively simple: at most, you need to confirm that the person worked between the dates they’ve stated in their resumé and that the actually held the job title they’ve quoted.  In some cases you may also be asked for the salary and benefits your erstwhile employee was paid, but this is not only the case. That is the bare minimum that most reference letters include. It might also be an idea to provide some details about what their duties in their job actually entailed, as that will give their prospective employers a clearer idea of how they are qualified for the job they have applied to.

This is all very much run-of-the-mill information, and will not actually provide much in the way of insight into how suitable a particular candidate is for a position. Then again, detailed references that seem “too good” are greeted by suspicion in some quarters; after all, if sombody is such a good employee, why does it seem like you are so eager to get rid of them?

If you do want to give somebody a glowing reference, perhaps start by asking them for a copy of the resumé they sent off so you can avoid repetition. Highlight any achievements that they have overlooked, and perhaps play up aspects of their duties that would complement their new position.  If there were ever a time when they went above and beyond their normal duties, perhaps to get a project in on deadline or under budget, highlight this too. And if you’re worried about seeming too effusive in your praise, it’s always a good idea to end this summary by stating that you would happily hire them back if they changed their mind about working elsewhere. Only include this addendum if it is true, however.
It can be frustrating, when you’re asked to write a reference letter, to realise tht one of your employees has not only been thinking about leaving, but has also taken the process far enough to be considered for a position elsewhere. Nevertheless, it’s a bad idea to try and poison the well by giving a vindictive reference. They have already impressed enough at interview to warrant a follow-up, and spreading falsehoods could lead to legal claims against your business. Instead, think rationally and try to be as objective as possible. You’d hate to hire someone of the back of misleading references, so don’t do the same to other employers.
[Image by MagnusFranklin]
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