How to write a reference or recommendation letter

HTWB recommendation smallUnless you’re about 12 years old or less, sooner or later you will be asked to write a reference or recommendation for someone – whether it’s a colleague, employee, student, friend, or even a whole company. If you Google “how to write a reference” you’ll find loads of advice, as I did just now. But unsurprisingly the available advice tends to be a bit starchy.

So: what makes a reference letter or email help your referee stand out from the crowd?

Here are my own thoughts which you might find helpful.

Keep it formal

Sorry, guys, but much as I love informality in some business writing instances, this isn’t one of them. Why? Because the poor kiddie you are writing about may well want to use your reference to impress someone who has no sense of humor, no imagination, no sense of true perspective and probably no life beyond the occasional round of golf and watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians on TV – so will be utterly rattled by any reference that isn’t proper, formal and tickety-boo.

In other words, once you have agreed to help whoever by creating a reference or recommendation letter for them, you owe them the courtesy of doing the best job for them that you can. So that means, keep it straight and formal. Anything else might harm your pal’s chances of getting that job.

No jokes, innuendos, slang, or anything else that might offend an older/more formal person.

And keep a close eye on spelling, grammar, syntax and other writing goofs. Silly mistakes play havoc with your credibility, which will reflect on the person you’re writing about. If you’re not familiar with the basics here, check this out

Keep it positive

Before we go any further, forget any negative stuff. No matter how much you may think it’s amusing to say how your pal snores when s/he shares an hotel room at a conference, forget it.

So writing something in the letter that you think is some sort of left-handed compliment, probably won’t be seen as such. Avoid writing anything that could possibly be construed as negative: just focus on the person’s strong points.

In addition, in some countries it’s actually illegal to write a negative / derogatory reference: so be warned.

The basics of a good reference letter/email

Even if the reference is to be emailed, use the formal business letter format. More on how to set that up here. If you don’t know the addressee’s details that’s OK: just address the document “To Whom It May Concern.” Above all, keep it simple, like this example here…

HTWB recommendation
Be sure to name your pal properly.

In the first paragraph, it’s a good idea to state why you’re writing this in the first place. Say something like…

I understand from my good friend / colleague / employee / student / (whoever) that you are considering (whatever they are considering) and you would like me to share my views on and experience of (name.) My connection with (name) has been (whatever it was).

Next, show that you understand why your pal needs this reference, e.g….

I appreciate that (pal) has applied for (whatever) and am delighted that s/he would like to join your (organization).

Now, why?

(Pal) has been (describe here what s/he has been doing either for or with you … summarize everything s/he has done that is relevant to the job s/he is applying for, and why you feel his/her skills are right for the job.)

If possible and relevant, give a few short examples of how the above has worked out in practice. End this part by relating it to the reader of the reference –

e.g. “I’m sure (name)’s experience here will make a very useful contribution to his/her next employer’s business.”

Next: the personal bit … share why you admire your pal and his/her positive character traits. Be factual, but kind.

And finally: (if you want) suggest that for further discussion you would be happy to receive a phone call or further correspondence from the person concerned to go into more detail.

Here’s what you must not include

(This applies in the UK but I think you will find that similar rules apply in a number of other countries) …

  • Any failings you feel your pal may have, even if they’re true …
  • Personal stuff like your pal’s own details – e.g. age, marital status, health issues, race, political views, nationality, religion, etc.
  • Anything that could possibly be seen as libelous
  • Any attempt at “bigging up” the person you’re writing about: keep it positive, but strictly factual
  • Lengthy descriptions of the person and/or their attributes: people don’t have time to read more than 3-4 paragraphs

A bit of extra personality?

You know me – when I write almost anything (well, maybe not a shopping list) I try to inject an element of personality into it.

So if your pal is applying for a job, say, in one of the arts-related industries, relax your reference a bit: write it so that – NOT a creative person, necessarily, but a person used to dealing with creative people – will find lively and interesting despite the formal environment.

If the application is in a specific industry like, for example, construction … try to use a few buzzwords that resonate – e.g. “firmly,” “foundations,” “building on,” etc. Or e.g. travel: “moving on,” “the road ahead,” “taking off,” “setting sail,” etc.

I know. You think that’s a bit cheesy, and it is. But trust me it rings bells, especially with business recruiters who have just sifted through 150 bland references that have no connection whatsoever with the advertised vacancy.

Have you been asked to write a reference or recommendation letter? If so, how did you go about it?
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