You have decided to find a new job, and you are required to provide a letter of recommendation. Or you are not, but still want to increase the chances of a positive answer. Writing a letter of recommendation competently is just as important a stage in the selection of candidates as an interview or testing. In this article, we will teach you how to write such letters for companies. If you need a letter of recommendation to a university, read our article on that topic instead.
Note! It doesn't matter if you need to write a recommendation for your former employee or get one for yourself, our instructions will suit everyone. For employers, it contains advice on their content and design, for employees — tips that will help to get a high-quality recommendation.
In addition to letters of recommendation, there are also reference letters, which are a slightly different story. For convenience, we are going to use the former as an umbrella term for both, unless specifically stating that we are using them separately at the beginning of a section.
There are two types of letters — a recommendation and a reference. Their difference lies primarily in their function.
Letters of recommendation aresent to a specific place or for a particular vacancy (commonly both). The referee writes it, knowing in advance where it will be sent. For example, you ask your boss to make a recommendation for Google. The letter will have a clear recipient — either an individual, e.g. the department manager, or just Google. The exact points stated in a recommendation letter are based on the job requirements or expectations of the recipient. The mediation on the applicant’s part is not needed here — the endorser sends the letter personally.
Reference letters have no specific recipient. If you are leaving your old place of work, but have not yet decided on a new one, then ask for a reference letter. This is a more versatile paper — it will be equally relevant to Google, Zara, Nestle, or “Sneed’s Seed & Feed”formerly "Chuck's" corner store. Often such letters are addressed “to whom it may concern”. This sort of letter is written in advance and given to the employee for keeping. It can be used later at any moment of convenience.
Who needs a letter of recommendation
A letter recommendation is usually required for:
Applying to certain companies;
those who want to increase their chances of success;
university graduates without work experience.
According to research by Martin Abel, a letter of recommendation greatly increases the probability of getting invited to an interview — by roughly 60%. In addition, employees hired during the experiment (i.e. those who were chosen based on a recommendation letter) performed noticeably better than their "ordinary" counterparts. Evidently, the letters are beneficial for both parties — the employer is more likely to get a competent worker, and the employee has better chances of landing a job.
The improved ability to assess a job candidate’s qualities is what lies at the roots of this phenomenon. Especially soft skills — those are hard to evaluate during an interview, and getting an opinion from someone who’s known the person for a good while can compensate for that. All the details can't fit into a resume. Therefore, we advise you to take care of the letter of recommendation, even if it is not requested during the first stages of interviewing.
Letters of recommendation are especially useful when there are several candidates competing for the job. Your resume and work experience may not be enough for an HR specialist to make a decision. A well-written letter can be the edge that will win you the position. If you have a favorable letter of recommendation, then your skills were satisfactory to your past employer. In addition, there will be no unpleasant surprises for the new company — all your characteristics, good or bad, are stated in writing.
A letter of recommendation comes in handy even if your only experience is university projects and research papers. In this case, ask your academic supervisor to describe your personal traits, performance, and relationships with classmates. But if you've done an internship, even for just a few months, take a recommendation from there.
In smaller organizations, the recommendation is usually written by the director of the company. But if there are more than 15 employees, contact your immediate supervisor, for example, the head of the department. Whether the letter will be useful and unbiased depends on how you choose the referee. Take the time to find the right person.
Note! Do not under any circumstances make up the recommender’s identity. If the deception is revealed, you are guaranteed to be shown to the door, and most companies do contact the recommenders.
When choosing your referee, stick to these principles:
It should be your superior. In some cases, you can request letters of recommendation from colleagues. This is appropriate if they enjoy authority in the professional community. Such a recommendation is especially useful if your specialty involves teamwork — you are a manager, teacher, flight attendant, or marketing expert. But the letters from those who understand the field better than you are more credible. The surveys on the matter show that the corporate authority is trusted in 71% of cases, and the former colleague — only in 15%. Deep knowledge of the field of work allows them to point out all your advantages and disadvantages. And most importantly, the manager can objectively compare your work with your colleagues’: what you do better or worse than others.
The endorser must know you well. Imagine a situation — an HR specialist at the company of your dreams phones your referee. But they cannot say anything specific, because they do not remember anything about you. In this case, even a well-written recommendation will lose its value. Interpersonal dialogue is much more trusted than a piece of paper. After all, it can be written by the employee or by a compliant employer who will sign anything, just to part ways peacefully.
In 2019-2020, a Russian recruitment company WorkMe conducted a survey for employers. 500 recruiters were inquired about the specific conditions when they require a letter of recommendation. Here are its results:
71% — if there is any doubt about the specified information;
51% — if they are looking for a candidate for a managerial position;
47% — if they cannot decide between the candidates.
In total, endorsers are called in 72% of cases.
You are on good terms with the recommender. Make sure the person you choose has something good to say about you. It makes no sense to ask for such a document from a person who does not believe in your merits. Even if you have a reputable employee in your company whose recommendation can seemingly help a lot, their words are unlikely to have a lot of weight. Remember that even if the letter itself is flawless, your manager will likely be contacted by HR. It will be impossible to disguise a cold attitude or even indifference towards you then.
The former employer has the right to refuse to write one. This usually happens in two cases: you have had a falling out with your boss, or nothing good can be said about you. If you did not work well, then the situation is difficult to change. It can sometimes be fixed by working for them for some more time.
Maintaining good relationships with your team is important — it's a surefire way to get positive feedback. But troubles happen, even if everything was normal before — a company can take your departure to the competitors painfully. Your only way to get a good recommendation letter is to make up for it somehow.
Unfortunately, if the issue cannot be resolved peacefully, you will have to get a new job without a recommendation.
How to get a letter of recommendation
How to ask for a letter of recommendation
As is the unfortunate tradition, most letters of recommendation are written by employees, and employers only validate the document with a signature. We do not recommend doing this — most likely such a letter will be biased. You risk losing trust from your new employers. Remember that getting a job in a company is only the first stage of your professional journey. You will have to prove what was written in the recommendation in practice.
In any case, no matter who is writing the letter — you or your boss, you will have to ask for a favor of at least signing it. How to do it?
Ask in advance. First, warn that you want to change your place of work, and only after a while ask for a recommendation. Two pieces of news at once will dazzle the boss. Half a month is the optimal time for them to describe the necessary details. Even if you only need a signature, don't put it off until the last day. Thinking that your former boss will prioritize your request is too optimistic.
Formulate your request correctly. Explain where you are applying, for what position, and what characteristics you need to be included. Avoid neutral recommendations — they are useless. “He does everything in accordance with the job description but hasn’t got enough initiative. Analytical skills are moderately developed” — such a characteristic is unlikely to give you an advantage over other candidates. Ask the referee to include only the facts that distinguish you from other employees. More about this in the next paragraph.
Collect information yourself. When the endorser sits down to write a letter, the necessary theses and situations should quickly pop up in their memory. Otherwise, you will get an abstract note that you are “responsible,” “know how to work in a team” and “a true professional.” At first glance, it may seem that there are no problems here. But without actual examples, such characterization is inconclusive. List the facts that must be included in the letter. No one remembers your accomplishments as well as you do. Do not rely on the referee in this matter — gather all the relevant information in advance. These are not only letters of gratitude and certificates for victories in competitions. These are your professional indicators over several years: how much sales have increased, what reviews were written by customers, how relations in the team have changed.
A sales manager has brought 10 customers to the company over the past year, which has increased the company's turnover by 30%.
The HR manager implemented a program that took employees five minutes a day to complete. As a result, layoffs fell from 15% to 3%.
The student received an “A+” for the graduation project in mathematics from a professor at Stanford University.
During the year, the journalist wrote 20 articles that have increased site traffic by 120%.
Ask in person. Even if the main method of communication in your company is emails, ask for a letter of recommendation in person. This will give your manager important details and make sure they understand your request. But remember — a personal request can psychologically put pressure on the employer. To avoid this, prepare a retreat — say that you will understand the rejection. You have no goal of getting a recommendation at any cost. A letter written sincerely and constructively is better appreciated.
How to write a letter of recommendation
Structure of a letter of recommendation
While there is no strict format, following this plan will make the letter look neat and you will definitely not forget to mention anything important.
Title. The paper is usually called a “recommendation letter,” even if it is a reference letter in nature.
Sender’s details are listed in the following order: manager's name, title, company name, street and house number, city, and postal code, country. Everything is located in the upper left corner.
Director of the marketing department
Advertising agency “Engagement”
1, Hill St
Date. Located three lines below the sender’s requisites. Example of writing: June 18th, 2021.
Introduction. It has to be formal and as personalized as possible. If you know the applicant’s name — address them by it (Dear Mr. Brown). Otherwise use their position, or the name of the department, if you don’t know how many people will read the letter (Dear President/Dear Customer Assistance Department). Only resort to the vague “To Whom it may concern/Dear Sir or Madam” if you have no better option. Oh, and never address the letter to “Dear Sirs” — this is very judgemental and had gone out of fashion by the 1960s.
The purpose of the letter. Indicate it in the first sentence of the first paragraph: “I am writing in enthusiastic support of ...”, “I am pleased to recommend ...”, “I am delighted to be called upon as a reference for…” The main notion here — don't use abbreviated verbs. And don’t worry about clichès, they are unavoidable in formal letters.
Main part. This is where you list all the relevant personal traits and skills, achievements, and other characteristics of the employee. Don’t forget to back the evaluations with illustrative facts:
Information about the old place of work — indicate the name of the organization, position, and your full name;
characteristics of the employee — information about professional achievements: victories in competitions, sales records, ideas that helped the company develop (it is appropriate to describe the typical tasks and experience in the company);
personal characteristics — two or three positive qualities that help in work — ideally, they should be supported by examples;
reasons for leaving the company (only if they are positive or neutral).
Conclusion. This part contains advice for future employer. Filled in at will. The main goal is to help the new company make effective use of the employee's qualities. Write what position you recommend the candidate for: “I recommend… as a promising candidate for...”
Signature. The last line is reserved for a polite goodbye and your signature: “Yours faithfully/sincerely.”
Tips for writing a letter of recommendation
The main idea is contained within the first sentence. The first phrase sets the tone for the entire letter. It has to be informative, not verbose. Your task is to make the reader want to go through the entire thing: “We confirm that Natalya Ivanova worked in our department for 3 years and during this time she has organized 20 festivals with an average attendance of 10 thousand people.”
Confidence. The most important thing for a new company is to know that the letter of recommendation was written sincerely. Your letter will be trusted if you show that you have worked a lot with the employee and hold responsibility for everything written. State how long you have known each other and how often you interacted.
Objectivity. Don't write a letter of recommendation at all if you think the employee was not performing well. Lying will ruin the reputation of the employee, as well as yours and your company’s;
Substance. Only write what actually happened. Don't use meaningless wording like “honest” or “productive.” Either illustrate the employee’s qualities with examples or omit them altogether if there’s nothing to base the characterization on. The letter will not benefit from abstractions.
Mistakes to avoid when writing a recommendation letter
Too short or too long. The optimal letter length is a single A4 sheet — even if all the advantages of the candidate do not fit on one page. A company that receives several resumes and letters of recommendation every day will not spend more than the allotted time reading yours. On the other hand, if there is too little information, do not write a recommendation at all. Most likely, you won’t provide anything to help the new company make a hiring decision.
Personal information. Do not write about things that are irrelevant to the employee’s work and relationships within the team. This includes their hobbies, personal qualities that are not used in work, or information about achievements in a field that is far from the company's activities.
Uncertainty. Do not write about a candidate if you know them poorly or if you doubt their professionalism. Most likely, you will be contacted by the new company for confirmation. You will not be able to provide an answer that satisfies the HR department. But even if you manage, sooner or later it will be found out that the applicant does not live up to what you wrote.
Negative reason for dismissal. An appropriate reason for quitting a job is either a neutral (moving to another city) or positive (searching for career growth) one. If it seems to you that the reason for leaving work is rather negative, it is better not to write about it. Otherwise, you will make the candidate look bad.
Poor timing. Jobseeker tip: do not submit a letter of recommendation along with your resume. At the initial stage of reviewing applicants, their resumes are commonly the only thing the HR manager will look at. Any additional materials will not be even read — if 50 people are applying for the position, the HR manager will not check unnecessary papers. But even if they do, suspicions will arise about you — it might look like your resume and qualifications are not enough and you are looking for outside support. It is best to bring a recommendation for an interview or send it by mail after the first stage of selection. But if you still want to immediately show that you have a letter of recommendation, just make a note in your resume that you are ready to provide a recommendation upon request.
Other documents for employment
A formal and concise document that describes your experience, skills, and education. A well-written resume allows the employer to quickly find out the most important information about you.
Unlike a resume, this is a less formal way to talk about yourself and your professional skills. In this document, you can write what was not entirely appropriate for the resume format — usually, you should state why you chose a particular company and position. In the cover letter, you can reveal in more detail your professional experience and the desired salary. There is no universal format for a cover letter — write politely, on-point, and do not forget to include your contacts.