Every now and again I get asked to write a “Letter of Reference” for a friend or colleague. It’s a hard thing to do: I’ve never considered it very useful to write complete bullshit, but it’s equally difficult (or at least unhelpful) to tell the full truth.
When putting together my thoughts for one such letter tonight, I dug up a letter I wrote for a librarian friend back in 2001. Here’s the heart of it, with the names changed to protect the innocent:
I’ve not worked with Sergei recently, and my experiences with him largely pre-date his work in librarianship, so I am unable to offer any comment on his specific technical or reference skills.
I can, however, offer you some comment on Sergei’s “interpersonal and communication skills, [and] his ability to work as a member of a team.”
My experience as an employer has taught me that the greatest challenge when staffing a position is to find an employee who will care passionately for the work — a person who will “own” their position, and feel a deep and personal commitment to the work and to the organization. I have no hesitation is telling you that Sergei is such a person.
Sergei is a person of unquenchable curiosity. He has a tremendous imagination, and an ability to look at problems in a novel way. He is a hard, dedicated worker and applies himself to tasks, monotonous or interesting, with equal intensity.
I have always found Sergei to be an effective manager and “team player.” My only caution in this regard is that Sergei can be very direct; he is not a skilled “bullshit artist” and sometimes his honest, straightforward, directness can be mistakenly interpreted. If Sergei is surrounded by a group of equally dedicated team members, effectively led, then he will be an invaluable and appreciated member of the team.
Sergei is theatrical. He certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypic of the “dour librarian” and he has an infectious enthusiasm and a love of life; he is witty and intelligent, and quick to make friends.
I wish you well in your deliberations; please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of further assistance.
Down there in paragraph number five is the kicker: I wanted to be honest about “Sergei’s” inability to suffer fools gladly but I wanted to give it an upside. I always work under the assumption that the reader will appreciate my honesty, and that it will make the rest of what I say ring truer.
The risk is that this will backfire, they’ll read this as “he’s an incorrigible wingnut” and Sergei will be left in the cold.
My inspiration in all of this is the cover letter I wrote to the PEI Crafts Council back in 1993 wherein I attempted to mask the fact that I’d no experience whatsoever in the crafts industry by spinning a yarn about how my experiences hitchhiking across the country afforded me a flexibility that transcended the need for specific job experience. It was a risk, but it worked (and it made for a good story for many years).
Sergei, on the other hand, didn’t get the job.
What’s your take on all of this? How do you write references (or cover letters). And what do you think about those that cross your desk?