Reference Letter

Do you want to know why you might use a reference letter?

The reference letter, while not the best reference option, is worth your review.
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A reference letter is provided for an employee by people who are familiar with his or her work or character and who have positive remarks to make. The reference letter can be employment-related, personal, or it can attest to the character of the individual.

Employees will request a reference letter for a variety of reasons that include both employment and personal needs.

Reasons for a Reference Letter

Employees ask employers for a reference letter to:

  • Obtain a new job, perhaps to relocate, to start a new career, or to obtain a promotion with a new employer;
  • Go back to undergrad or grad school;
  • Obtain a loan from a bank or credit union;
  • Serve on a Board of Directors for a school, church, or nonprofit organization;
  • Volunteer to work with children or the elderly; and
  • Move into a new home or condominium.

Reference letters have become a staple in a society where employees move frequently, may know no one in a new region, and may live far from relatives and friends. To an employer, reference letters are not the preferred method of communication about an employee's former job performance, however.

Reference Letters Serve a Limited Purpose

We're not huge fans of reference letters as we prefer to speak directly with the applicant's former employer. We have received reference letters that are years out-of-date, so ratty from multiple uses and photocopying that they are almost unreadable.

You never know who actually wrote the reference letter either. Reference letters are not interactive so you can't ask questions or seek more information.Yet, they can occasionally serve a purpose when the writer is unavailable. Examples include supervisors who have retired, managers who have moved to a different employer out of the region, and bosses who have died.

So, we are sympathetic when a prospective employee uses a reference letter, but we also seek out personal conversations with prior bosses when we check candidate references.

Who Might You Want to Ask for a Job Reference?

Employers are increasingly checking job references. To check job references is to request, verbally or in writing, the answers to a series of questions that you have prepared to ask former employers about your job candidate. Employers are concerned about future litigation and legal issues, so they are sometimes hesitant to answer your questions.

Consequently, in this climate, how to respond to another employer checking job references and how to check job references for your own company is increasingly important. Most job candidates have a prepared list of job, and sometimes, personal references.

If you have decided that you are interested in a particular candidate, ask the candidate for their job references. Do check the candidate’s proffered job references, but go beyond this reference list.

Use the employment application to identify direct supervisors and others who may have knowledge of your candidate’s work. These are the people with whom you really want to speak. They can credibly speak to the potential employee's strengths and weaknesses. They can tell you how they liked working with your applicant.

They can respond to your all-important question - you do ask this question or a similar one, don't you? "Do you believe that this employee is qualified to perform my open position's responsibilities as you understand the duties of the job from my description?"

Contact them for job references. Tap into your own network of colleagues and associates to determine if you can find additional job references about your candidate’s work history and accomplishments. If you are in touch with professional association members in the candidate's field, these potential references can also yield important job reference information.