Be Careful What You Ask For

Requesting references and recommendations is risky business.

Within the past year, I’ve been asked by two former colleagues to write graduate school recommendation letters. Both these people are a credit to their respective professions – one is a journalist, and the other is in marketing and communications – so I was happy to oblige and felt honored to have been asked.

There are, however, times when a not-so-professional or downright dreadful current or former colleague requests a job reference or a letter of recommendation. Or, after giving a reference or recommendation, the requester doesn’t follow up with a thank you, handwritten or otherwise. In the professional setting, both are tricky situations that, if not properly handled on both sides, can breed resentment and frustration.

The first step in requesting a reference or letter of recommendation is to make an honest assessment of your working relationship with the other party. If there is any doubt about how they feel about your work ethic or the quality of your work, scratch them off the short list.

Asking the wrong person might not only result in a bad recommendation, but also awkwardness. If you ask a coworker or manager who knows they aren’t able to say good things about your performance, they now have to figure out how to tactfully excuse themselves from the situation. Preventing the uncomfortable scenario in the first place is well within your grasp. Know thyself.  

Next, always give a heads-up to anyone you’ve listed as a reference or potential candidate for a recommendation letter, even if it’s an ongoing, reciprocal agreement. If you don’t see them very often, they may need a reminder of who you are and time to pull your files. Your mom was right when she said the world doesn’t revolve around you – people have short memories, so help them help you.

Once you’ve gotten the green light on using the other party as a reference or recommendation, give your colleague some insight into the job or program to which you are applying.

A bullet list of key points can be helpful, so offer it up as a starting point.

That said, keep in mind that the other party is not beholden to your preferred list of accolades, accomplishments and abilities and can say or write whatever he or she feels is suitable. It’s out of your hands.

After the reference is given or letter submitted, follow up with a thank you – either in person, on the phone or via email. A handwritten thank-you note is always welcome and a small token of appreciation, such as a gift card, a thank-you lunch, or a small tailored gift, are all great ideas.

Hooking them up with high-quality baked goods also doesn’t hurt.

Unless you have a casual relationship or a friendship outside of work with the other party, avoid texting your gratitude and stick with one of the more formal approaches. Keep it professional. This is especially important if the other person is a current or former manager.

Finally, the people who gave that solid reference or wrote a spectacularly favorable recommendation letter should be among the first to hear when you are offered the job or acceptance into the program to which you’ve applied. Getting the news via social media or through the grapevine when they played a role in the success of the campaign can breed hurt feelings, so share the news as soon as possible. The same applies if you don’t get the job or are declined entry into the program or workshop.

In the case of the latter, thank them for their help and accept the condolences, pats on the back for trying and encouragement to keep at it, because a little sympathy will help ease the pain.  

As with any relationship, communication is key. If you remember that and proceed with honesty and integrity, colleagues past, present and future will clamor to recommend you throughout your career.




Categories: Biz Etiquette, The Magazine