Writing Reference Letters Is a Responsibility We Tacitly Commit to When We Take on Positions of Authority.
By Thomas J. Roach
When others work for us, a social and professional bond is created. Responding to a request for a reference letter isn’t optional, and it isn’t doing someone a favor. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, providing references is a moral and ethical obligation for every manager.
If writing isn’t part of your job, this may seem daunting. It is impossible to communicate someone’s worth in a letter, so don’t let the task overwhelm you. Much of reference writing is formulaic, and the recipients know it.
Minimally, you have to say who you are in relation to the job candidate, and state the candidate’s job title and years of employment. Listing the candidate’s skills and accomplishments is also standard in most letters. This may be all that is required for hourly employees.
For professional exempt positions, it gets more complicated.
There is a Code.
Letters of reference can have a profound impact on careers, and consequently there are legal penalties for making unsubstantiated defamatory claims about the job candidate.
There are also EEO guidelines that should be followed. Do not list weaknesses or say anything that could be considered libelous. Technically, it is permissible to make negative observations if they are substantiated and not open to misinterpretation, but it is unwise to venture into this territory.
Even if you are correct in your negative assessment of the candidate, it may be difficult to prove in court. Also, keep in mind basic EEO guidelines and make no reference to race, age, marital status, health or politics.
Rarely does a reference letter contain anything negative about the job applicant. Reference immunity legislation in many states protects those providing reference letters from civil lawsuits, but almost everyone goes out of their way to avoid the risk of being sued.
Because everyone knows reference letters are constrained by the potential for legal repercussions, hiring committees tend to read between the lines. Letters for job applicants in professional positions that only verify job title and employment dates are interpreted as negative because of a lack of persuasive positive details.
Conversely, positive letters of reference have few constraints; former employers who want to endorse their former employees tend to use the most positive language possible. Anyone with experience with reference letters knows this dichotomy.
Since a sparsely worded letter is code for a negative reference, someone wanting to write a positive endorsement letter, then, goes in the extreme opposite direction.
When writing a positive reference, I start off with an endorsement. For instance, “It is my extreme pleasure to recommend…” Then I include the required verifications, and I relate a personal experience with the candidate that exemplifies his or her qualifications.
When I close, I offer my cell phone number. Of course I employ liberal doses of hyperbole throughout. Recently I told an employer my student was so qualified for an entry level PR job, that if they discovered anything she couldn’t do, to call me and I would do it for them free of charge.
I fired a reporter once for fabricating quotes; that is the only reference letter I would refuse to write. While I reserve the hyperbole for deserving candidates, I try to say something positive about everyone. One student got caught after stealing my exam from our copy room. A couple years later he graduated, and asked me for a reference. I said he was resourceful.
The best way for managers to support their employers is by supporting their employees. A sincere employee focus doesn’t start and stop with the current job. Good leaders help employees advance their careers.
They give them positive and negative feedback when it is called for, they prepare them and recommend them for promotions, and if employees’ career paths take them outside the company, then they facilitate that as well.
Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].