May 28, 2018

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How to Write a Letter of Reference

If youíve ever been asked to write a letter of reference your first thought should be, "Can I really recommend this person with a clear conscience?"

Staking your reputation for someone is no small matter. What if the person doesnít do a good job? And if youíre only an acquaintance, do you really know what this person does and how hard they work?

Here are two questions from readers:

Dear Joan:

I was looking for advice and feedback from you. What is your recommendation on how to handle employment references when the applicant has worked in an administrative capacity for a spouse and cannot produce other references?

Dear Joan:

I am a police officer and I have been asked to write a letter of reference by one of my district citizens, for she has been asked for one by her job tutor. Can you help me in writing a suitable one please?


The first question is, "Am I a work reference or a character reference?" If you have been a co-worker or, better yet, the personís manager, you are in a good position to be a reference. You can either write a letter of recommendation, or allow your name to be added to the candidateís list of references.

If you are a relative or an acquaintance, you canít be much more than a character reference. In the case of the police officer, no doubt the job candidate wants an endorsement from a reliable source.

The police officer can write a short letter describing the nature of their relationship and his or her endorsement of their character. For instance, "John Smith has been in my district since I began working in the area four years ago. He has been an active block captain, communicating with neighbors about safety. In addition, he is well regarded in his community for his volunteer efforts with seniors. He has also been actively involved in school fundraisers. Last year he successfully led a campaign to buy and install new playground equipment. I can personally vouch for his integrity and character."

In the case of the person who has only a spouse for a reference, youíd be wise to ask for names of customers, suppliers, and peers, in addition to speaking to the spouse. You can find out more unbiased information from a supplier than someone who is too close to be honest.

In general, a letter of reference is less useful to an employer than a list of references he or she can call. Employers know that the candidate is going to choose advocates who wonít say anything negativeóespecially since the letter is handed to the candidate!

If you are asked to write a letter, you can always request to be added to the reference list instead. That way you can ask the potential employer about the job duties and you will be in a position to give lots of examples that relate to the specific position.

If itís a letter the candidate wants, then try to put yourself in the shoes of the potential employer. The basics of the letter should include:

  • Who you are and what working relationship you had with the individual, and for how long.
  • List a few of the relevant job responsibilities of the individual and give specific examples of his or her results in each area.
  • If the person was a good team player, had a great work ethic and only missed three days in four years, or was well-respected by customers, say so. How the person performed is as important as what he or she did.
  • Finally, make a personal statement about how strongly you would recommend this person.
  • Offer to be contacted in person if the employer wants more details.

But what if you canít really recommend this person with a clear conscience? You can always beg off by saying, "I think so and so would be a better reference for you." Or, "I never really worked with you that closely, so I donít have enough information." Or, "Sorry, I donít like giving recommendations for anyone."

- Joan Lloyd

Joan Lloyd has a solid track record of excellent results. Her firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding. This includes executive coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized leadership training, conflict resolution between teams or individuals, internal consulting skills training for HR professionals and retreat facilitation. Clients report results such as: behavior change in leaders, improved team performance and a more committed workforce.

Joan Lloyd has earned her C.S.P. (certified speaking professional) designation from the National Speakers Association and speaks to corporate audiences, as well as trade & professional associations across the country. Reach her at (800) 348-1944,, or

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