Sooner or later, you’re going to be asked to write a recommendation for someone. These requests fall into two camps. First, there are those for individuals you can enthusiastically support. Those people show up at work, act respectfully toward colleagues, do their jobs and meet annual goals.
And there are recommendations for people who are well … meh. Or worse, bleh.
Here’s how to respond to the two varieties of requests, while remaining professional and avoiding a Seattle-style, avoidant “I’ll do it later” response. (Meaning, never.)
How to write a letter of recommendation
If your employee, colleague or student asks you to recommend them, and you’re excited to do so — go for it.
“I’ll write a quality letter of recommendation if I’ve known someone for [at least] a year, and had frequent conversations, engagements and interactions that were positive, or mostly positive,” says Ciera Graham, a former career counselor and current director of Everett Community College East County Campus.
One point of consideration for Graham: If she owned a company, would she hire the applicant?
Various individuals have asked her to write recommendations on their behalf, including former students, employees, board members and even old college friends. “When it comes to writing letters, people approach people they’re comfortable with,” she says.
Before sitting down to write, ask the person seeking your recommendation to send you their current resume. It should include an up-to-date assessment of their skills, qualifications and accomplishments, Graham says.
When doing the hiring, Graham likes to see a recommendation letter stating how the applicant is an excellent candidate, along with a sentence that plainly states, “I strongly believe this person is qualified for this position.” Graham tries to feel equally confident for anyone she’s recommending.
If you’re the employee asking for a letter, “help the recommender be specific about what to talk about and what they can speak to,” says Seattle-based career coach Janet Matta. Send a note with the job description attached, and tell your recommender what’s most important to the hiring manager — experience in the field, for example, or sales skills — so they can address your expertise in that realm.
A rec or a wreck? How (not) to write a letter of recommendation
Sometimes, Graham sits applicants down to break some bad news. Often, her hesitancy to write a letter stems from the disconnect between the role’s requirements and the letter-seeker’s current qualifications.
“I’ve told people no,” Graham says. “I explain that I feel they may not be the best person for that role or they’re not qualified. Then we have a conversation about why they’re not qualified,” along with steps to remedy the gap.
If someone lacks outlined skills such as working with diverse groups of people, then volunteer work or community projects might be necessary before the next job application.
“If I’m not enthusiastic, I don’t need to be writing that letter,” Graham says. But she does a quick gut-check too: Does her disinterest stem from one bad experience that’s clouding her best judgment or an overall negative perception of the individual?
If you’re lukewarm on an applicant, Matta suggests trying to focus on the person’s positive qualities. For a less-than-reliable applicant, Matta specifically elaborated on her positive traits — the employee’s performance of work, not her lackadaisical attendance record.
If you feel compelled to write a less-than-recommended letter, for whatever reason, keep it vague. Observations like “she was pleasant to work with” can work in a pinch, Matta says. Savvy hiring managers will be able to read between the lines.
And what if you’re the applicant seeking a letter, when you know you weren’t the best co-worker or employee? Make your request with a side of humble pie. Perhaps, for example, your unreliability is an underlying personality trait. But if you were going through a personal or health issue, for example, offer transparency about the cause. Being honest and emotionally mature about the issue should help open the door to a potentially positive review.
Start with “I might not have been the best employee …” before asking for that recommendation, Matta suggests. “With some guidance, they don’t have to mention the reliability of your attendance.”