Letters of Reference

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?


oliver's picture
oliver on October 13, 2006 - 06:39 Permalink

My all-time favorite take on “suffering fools gladly” is a 2001 piece from the New Yorker. An illicit cached copy is best I can do for a quick link:…

oliver's picture
oliver on October 13, 2006 - 06:43 Permalink

This time I’ll put that ungainly URL as “my website” on Peter’s comment form so maybe “OLIVER” will link there.

Marian's picture
Marian on October 13, 2006 - 12:33 Permalink

When my parents were young, people were hired after a conversation with the owner of a business. For instance, my father got his first job with a newspaper by going in and asking about positions. These days people seem to have to travel around with huge files on themselves guaranteeing that they are good people (resumes, portfolios and letters of reference, the works). They also, usually, have to go through complex application processes with searching interviews and background checks, drug tests etc.. It’s all a bit much. I guess my own perspective on letters of reference is that you should decide in advance if you want the person’s application to be put on the *interview pile* or the *non-interview* pile. If you want the person to be hired, give him or her a nice letter leaving out any little personal quibbles you have with them. If you have subjective judgements about some minor flaw in a colleague’s personality, the letter of reference is not always the best place to air them. If you don’t want the person to be hired, tell them you can’t write them a letter.

Cyn's picture
Cyn on October 13, 2006 - 14:22 Permalink

I end up on my kid’s (Ash and Ian) friend’s reference lists. I have many stories about the phone calls and what I actually tell these ‘potential employers’. Little do my kid’s friends know, but I tell the truth. I’ve told HR people things like, “she’s a polite kid but thinks she’s always right.”

The most most official interview I had to partake in was involving a kid I used to babysit after school. He was (and is) pursuing a career in the military. A guy came over from Nova Scotia to interview me about him. The questions were very in depth, ranging from early childhood information to whether or not I thought he had what it takes to defend our country. I did tell the truth and shared some not so complimentary details with the interviewer. I felt like I did the right thing, but I also hoped that I didn’t single-handedly chart a lame course for the young lad’s future as a member of the Armed Forces. He’s in Afghanistan right now, so I guess they felt he was trustworthy enough to risk his life over there every day.

Pete Prodoehl's picture
Pete Prodoehl on October 16, 2006 - 15:53 Permalink

I’d go with the honest approach. Ultimately there should be a good match between employer and employee, and if not, the relationship probably won’t work out unless one party can easily change the basis of who/what they are…

Of course with my experience in the U.S. I’ve seen that often organizations won’t say anything about you but confirmable facts, and never anything negative for fear of being sued…

Jevon MacDonald's picture
Jevon MacDonald on October 16, 2006 - 21:35 Permalink

Marian: My experience (in hiring, and helping friends find jobs) is that the real hiring still gets done the old fashioned way. Resumes, HR Departments and References have no sway in the face of actually getting to know, or finding a way to introduce yourself to, someone who does the hiring (a manager, or VP, etc). At least that is how good jobs get filled. People need to know they can trust the person they are hiring.