A reference letter, or recommendation, is used to endorse an individual who you have experience working with, and provides examples of their skills, abilities, knowledge, and character that they displayed in their job at your company. A reference letter may be required as part of a job or academic application that the person is in the process of going through.

Someone may ask for a reference letter as they leave their current position as an employee with your company, or they may ask for a reference many years after they have left the business. This is because in some instances they may require multiple references from different parties for a job application with a certain employer or particular course applications, so they will also get in contact with multiple prior places of employment for this.

A letter of recommendation is hugely important for both the recipient and the sender. For the receiver, a recommendation letter can be the deciding factor in whether they get a job they were vying for, or if they get into a course, or snap up a scholarship. It’s one of the most impactful forms of advertising you can get. This is a vital thought to bear in mind – as you write a reference you are effectively marketing an individual.

Start your letter by introducing yourself

When drafting up your initial template, one of the first things you should clarify in your reference letter is who you are and how you are connected to the applicant you are recommending. Even though it may seem obvious that if you’re writing the letter, you are their past employer, you should still state this and also clarify whether you were directly managing the individual, reported into them, or worked with them on a project specific basis. You should make sure it’s clear what exactly the nature of your working relationship was, in order to give context for the rest of what you say about the candidate in your letter.

If you know the full name of the recipient of the reference letter include their name (eg. Dear Ms Singh, Dear Mr Kelly, Dear Dr Elton, etc.), though if you haven’t been provided with the name, and the person you’re recommending isn’t able to provide any name simply saying ‘to whom it may concern’ will work just fine. If you are writing the reference as a letter you may want to provide your work email and phone number so that the company or school is able to contact you should they have any follow-up questions, although you may be asked to send it as an email instead.

Make sure your reference relevant to the role they’re applying for

When writing the sample template document for a recommendation letter for a candidate for a particular job opening with a new employer, the letter should include information about how the person’s skills match the position they are applying for, not just a general overview of how they are a likeable or skilled person. There is no point discussing the person’s ability to work well independently on projects when the job they are applying for specifies a need for them to work well in a team.

It might work in your favour to ask for a copy of the job posting and a copy of the person’s CV if the employee is comfortable providing these so you when you are writing your reference letter you can bear those in mind. Once you have reviewed these resources you can reflect again on why this person and their background makes them a strong fit for the role they are applying for and include keywords and skills from the job description.

When tailoring your reference letter template to include the specific requirements, try to fit in as many real life examples as you can about times you witnessed the employee performing well at these particular skills in their job at your company. For example, if you know that this job they have applied to requires detailed knowledge of excel or being customer facing, come up with examples of their time working with you where they showed strength and skill in these areas. Nobody is interested in reading a letter full of praise for someone that is only backed up with anecdotes.

Be Specific in your recommendation, with details and anecdotes

If you’re able to, make sure that from the template stage of writing your reference that everything you include in the letter is as precise as possible. Remember that you are writing to someone who does not know the applicant nearly as well as you do, so when writing the letter of recommendation, make sure you are clear as it could make or break an opportunity for the applicant. Being vague in a reference letter can make it come across as ingenuine, or as if the person you’re vouching for didn’t actually make that much of a great impression on you when you worked together. When you describe the employee as hardworking or tech savvy, be sure to back it up with examples of when you saw as their employer how they were particularly dedicated with their time and energy to an important project, or when they saved you bothering the IT team!

If needed, you could refresh your memory about the person if it has been a while since you worked with them. It can never hurt to ask HR what their exact title was when they were an employee with you, how long they were employed with your company and any other metrics they may have access to which can jog your memory as to what it was like working with them, and what areas they excelled in the most at your company. Asking these further questions will provide facts that cannot be missed out of your letter and are absolutely necessary for a potential future employer to know about the applicant.

Make it a positive letter, but be honest

Be honest with the applicant’s potential new employer in your reference letter, since it reflects upon you as well as the candidate— you should not be writing a fantastic reference for someone you do not know well or do not believe would be a good employee. If this is the case, it might be best to politely decline writing the letter.

If, however you are happy to write the letter for the job applicant, avoid being negative or bringing up faults or weaknesses. You can be positive about your experiences with this person while they were an employee with you while still remaining honest. Everyone has their weaknesses and faults, but as the writer of the reference letter it’s on you to steer towards the relevant good news. There may even be aspects of the employee’s personality which aren’t outright objective strengths, but could be in the right situation. For example, perhaps you found that the job seeker you’re writing a reference letter for is particularly introverted and quiet. While this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it does not make them a bad employee, and in some cases may be strength! If for example the position they’re applying for is a work from home or hybrid model, or they would be given a lot of projects to work on independently, then this personality trait means they would probably thrive in it.

Bear in mind, that in a way a reference letter is part of offboarding, especially if the employee you’re providing it for only recently left your company. It will give a final impression of yourself as an individual as well as your company overall, so it’s important that you try to write your reference letter to the highest quality possible.

About the author

Hannah Elliott