Best Practices to Providing a Professional Reference

August 7, 2023

We’ve all been job seekers throughout our careers and are accustomed to being asked by a prospective employer to provide references. At some point, the time may come when you’re asked to be a job reference for someone else. 

Think about how important it was for you to have supportive references in your corner to speak glowingly to a hiring manager on behalf of you, your character, your work ethic and your accomplishments, among other key achievements and compliments. Having good references was integral to your success in finding a new job.

Now it’s your turn to do the same for someone else. And if it’s someone you know well, like, respect and can recommend without reservation or hesitation, you’ll have no shortage of great things to share — a great way to help them get that gig and advance in their career.

It’s important to do so in a way that is both helpful and professional. Here are some best practices to keep in mind when providing a reference.

Consider the Type of Reference

Employers generally ask for one of two common references:

  • Character references are generally from people who can speak to a job candidate’s values and integrity, their people/interpersonal skills or their involvement in extracurricular activities or community service involvement. A character reference can be someone you know well personally but doesn’t necessarily need to be someone you’ve worked with. 
  • If you were the candidate’s former supervisor or close colleague, and you’re acquainted well with a person’s work, you may be asked to be a professional reference. A hiring manager may ask you to verify when you worked together, describe their primary duties and responsibilities, and explain some of their strengths. 

Make Sure You Know the Person Well

Before agreeing to be a reference, make sure that you have worked closely with the person and that you can speak to their skills, abilities and work ethic. If you don’t feel comfortable providing a reference, whether because you didn’t work with the person closely or for other reasons, it’s better to decline than to give a lukewarm recommendation.

Be Honest

When providing a reference, it’s important to be honest about the person’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t exaggerate their accomplishments or downplay their shortcomings. The best references are honest and provide a well-rounded view of the person’s abilities.

Be Specific

Instead of giving general statements, try to provide specific examples of the person’s skills and accomplishments. For example, instead of saying, “Jane is a great team player,” state something like, “Jane led a team of five people on a project and was able to bring everyone together to achieve a common goal.”

Use Concrete Numbers

Following on specificity, remember that including concrete numbers to demonstrate the person’s wins and successes can help bolster your reference. Rather than making vague statements like, “John is a great salesperson,” back that assertion up by giving a real example: “John was able to increase sales by 15 percent in the first quarter of the year.”

Keep it Brief

If it’s a reference letter you’re asked to provide, keep it to one page or less. Hiring managers and recruiters are busy and have limited time to read a longer letter considering the number of reference letters they may receive. Make your points clearly and concisely in both written form or if you’re contacted by phone.

Use Proper Formatting

A reference letter should be typed and formatted professionally. Use a standard business letter format and include your contact information at the top.

Get Permission to Review

Before you email your reference letter, it’s a good idea to ask the person you’re referring to review the letter to ensure everything is factually correct, including dates, titles, and especially spelling and information for the company/hiring manager the letter is addressed to.

Follow Up

After you’ve provided your reference, follow up with the person you’ve referred to and ask if they received the reference, and if it was helpful. What was the feedback they received from the hiring manager regarding the job position? Checking in with them can help improve your reference-giving skills in the future, for them or other people.

Pinpoint your Next Career Move

Providing a professional reference can be a great way to help someone advance in their career. However, it’s important to do it in a way that is both helpful and professional. By following these best practices, you can help the person you are providing a reference for and make sure that your reference is effective.

Pinnacle has worked for years matching candidates with the right positions in accounting, technology, finance and law. If you’re a job seeker or know a potential reference who’s in the market for a new position, contact us today.

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