Questions About Professional References

By Ford R. Myers
President, Career Potential, LLC

Over the years, when working with clients on developing their “third-party validation,” I have noticed that several questions seem to consistently arise regarding Letters of Recommendation and List of Professional References. It is likely that you will benefit from this dialogue as well, as you review the answers below …

1. When I ask people to write Letters of Recommendation or to be on my List of Professional References, should I “coach them” on what kind of information to share with prospective employers?

Yes. Tell your letter writers and phone reference people that the best information they can  provide will focus on your SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, TANGIBLE results. Vague, bland descriptions of general traits and attributes will not work! It’s all about productivity, efficiency and profitability. It’s all about results. In the employer’s mind, it’s all about “What can you do for me, TODAY?!”

2. What are some specific things I should prompt my reference people to say or write about me?

There are TWO kinds of people who can provide critical “third-party validation:” (1) people who are on a List of Professional References; and (2) people who write Letters of Recommendation. It is important to select these individuals carefully, and assign the appropriate task to each one depending on their style and personality. Some people are excellent writers; some are great talkers

You should contact each individual, stating exactly what you want them to do, and soliciting their participation.

Then, send each person your collection of “job-seeker support tools” (via e-mail and “snail mail”), including these four items: Cover Letter, Professional Biography, Resume and Target Company List. The cover letter should include a bullet list of the specific attributes or experiences that you want these individuals to to focus on in their letters or phone calls. NOTE: the cover letter that is sent to the “letter writers” will be slightly different from the cover letter sent to the “phone reference people.” Below are two points of distinction:

Tell the phone reference people to inform you immediately when they receive any calls from prospective employers or recruiters. (This information will be very valuable to you!)

Tell the letter writers to send back “rough drafts” of their Letters of Recommendation, so you can “check them for accuracy” before they’re finalized. (Reserving the right to do minor editing as needed).

In addition, you should provide these general tips to the letter writers:

  • Print the final letter on the company’s letterhead. If the employer does not permit such letters to be printed on company letterhead, then a personal letterhead can easily be created (name, address, phone, e-mail, etc. at top of the document).
  • There should be no date on the Letter of Recommendation, and no salutation (no “Dear _____”). Use neither, “To Whom it May Concern,” nor “Dear Sir/Madam.”
  • Keep the Letter of Recommendation fairly brief, and never more than one page.

Finally, you should always offer to help each of these people in a similar capacity, should the need ever arise in their careers.

3. What can I do to ensure that my reference people are “good and helpful?” How can I prepare them? Should I arrange a 5-minute phone call to talk to them, or e-mail them talking points, etc.?
The best ways to ensure that your phone reference people and letter writers will be “good and helpful” is to select these people carefully in the first place, and to then guide them through the whole process, “leaving nothing to chance.” A 5-minute preliminary phone call may be very helpful, and this is recommended whenever possible. If a preliminary phone call is not possible, you can send each individual the guidelines above and below. They will appreciate you providing clear instruction, which makes their job much easier.

Below is a sample outline of the Letter of Recommendation. You should give this information to your letter writers:

  1. The first paragraph should say something like:
    “I am writing to you on behalf of my former colleague, Sally M. Smith. I had the privilege of working with her from (use dates) when she was the (title) of (company XYZ).” Use your own words.
  2. In the 2nd paragraph, mention some specifics that you recall about me:
    “As the (title) at (company), Sally directed the strategic planning process for our division and led the economic and market forecasting. Her forecasts were instrumental in a number of projects, including a, b and c. She actively contributed to the composites industry by doing d, e and f. Sally consistently demonstrated (use strength words, such as leadership, problem-solving, communication, follow-through, analysis, organization, etc.). Throughout her tenure with (company), she proved herself to be _______ and a _________ team player.” (Or something along those lines. Focus your attention on my contributions to the company as much as possible). Use your own words.
  3. For paragraph 3, you may wish to mention some personal traits/values of mine:
    What was it like to work with me, how did I measure-up as a team member compared with others? What contributions was I known for? What was I particularly good at? What positive recollections of working with me do you have? Use whatever adjectives come to mind.
  4. The last paragraph should reiterate how you feel about me as a professional and my overall value as an employee:
    “I feel strongly that Sally would bring a, b and c to any organization and prove to be a valuable, contributing member,” (or something similar). End with a sentence that says something like, “I would be happy to talk with you if you have any questions about Sally,” or “Please feel free to contact me directly if you would like to know more about Sally’s work.” Use your own words.

Here is an example of a Cover Letter that you would send to your letter writers:

Dear ___________:

Thank you for speaking with me yesterday regarding my career search and networking activities. I appreciate your willingness to lend assistance.

In order to make the process as easy for you as possible, I have attached three documents to give you an overview of my professional background. These include my: Resume, Professional Biography, and Target Company List.

Please prepare a rough draft of your Letter of Recommendation and send it to me by ______. I will check the document for accuracy and return it promptly with any necessary changes. The final letter should be printed on your company letterhead, with no date or salutation

Thank you again for your assistance, (recipient’s name). I would be happy to help you in a similar capacity, should the need ever arise.

Sincerely,

Your Name Here
Enclosures / Attachments

4. Is there anyone you SHOULDN’T ask to be a reference? Why?
You should NOT ask people to serve as a phone reference or Letter of Recommendation writer if they do not know your work! All phone reference people and Letter of Recommendation writers need to be very familiar with the quality of your work. The longer and closer the two of you have worked together, the better. Also, do NOT ask friends and family to serve as phone reference people or Letter of Recommendation writers. What you’re looking for is PROFESSIONAL references, not personal references!

The job market is more competitive than ever. When two or more candidates are equally-qualified, the one who provides strong Letters of Recommendation and a solid List of Professional References will project the greatest credibility and most likely get the offer! So why NOT have this “extra ammunition” in your arsenal?

About the Author:
Ford R. Myers is an award-winning career coach and President of Career Potential, LLC. He is author of the best-seller, Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring. Ford’s firm helps clients take charge of their careers, create the work they love, and earn what they deserve! He has held senior consulting positions at three of the nation’s largest career service firms. Ford’s articles and interviews have appeared in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, television and radio networks. He has also conducted presentations at many companies, associations and universities. Learn more at www.CareerPotential.com or contact Ford directly at 1-800-972-6588.

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