I'm often asked the question by my outplacement candidates if reference letters are still helpful in the job search process. While many elements of the job search have changed, I still maintain that reference letters are a classic: something that will never totally go out of style. However, as with everything else in the job search-doing a reference letter the wrong way can lead to disastrous results. Case in point: I read a reference letter earlier today for a friend who had gone to great lengths to get multiple reference letters from a variety of sources. Alas, none of the letters told the story of how she did the job that she held. Even worst, they talked about things that had nothing to do with the job that she wanted. There was one letter in particular that talked about how great she was at cleaning houses. Now, this seems like a great letter to have except for the fact that her house cleaning work was not on her resume and she was applying for an executive assistant role. Hmmm...call me crazy, but when I'm thinking of an executive assistant, I am not thinking about whether she knows the difference between Tilex and Tide.
Reading these letters made me wonder if people really know what they should be getting from their references. Probably not, so let's cover the basics using the STAVE model:
Specific: It may seem counterintuitive to give your references points to ponder as they write your reference letters, but you should bear in mind that no one knows your work history better than you. Remind them of that project where you saved 200 labor hours, or how you increased sales by 10% over prior year. Help them with specific examples to include and it will get you a more effective reference letter.
Timely: This is the one that can negate them all. If you are using reference letters from 20 years ago with nothing more recent, you are sending up a very large red flag to a potential employer who is going to wonder why none of your recent employers have anything nice to say. However, this will mean that you are going to have to refresh your references every few years. A great way to manage that is to use sites like LinkedIn.com to collect and display your references right on your profile.
Appropriate: Letters from community leaders about you as a human are not always going to be a sure fire winner to helping you land a job. Ask yourself: Will a letter about how well you clean houses get you that high level job? If the answer is no, then the letter is not appropriate-no matter who it came from. Helping your references with some specific coaching on what you need to see for the letter to be effective is an appropriate action. However, letters about your work in the community combined with letters about your work on the job can be a powerful one, two punch in creating a comprehensive picture of you for a potential employer.
Variety: Think of having a wide variety of people to choose from when getting your letters. Consider bosses, coworkers, customers/clients, and people that you managed. However, as we mentioned in the section above, the selections you make still need to be appropriate to the job you want.
Employ: Consider what I have said above about having a variety of letters that are appropriate for the job you want. Well, also consider employing certain letters for certain jobs. If you have 10 people who want to write letters of reference or recommendation for you, great! But you will not want to give a potential employer all 10 letters. Consider showing 3 letters that most appropriately highlight skills that are specific to the job you want, and then provide contact info for the other references if required. And yes-it probably will be required as a good recruiter is going to check all of her facts on her own.