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Five strategies for when you need a recommendation letter or reference
illustration by Tony Healey
Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.


It’s recommendation letter and reference season. That’s what I call the time of year when soon-to-be college graduates are cranking job searches up to full speed or, for those seeking additional education and training, submitting those last-minute scholarship and internship applications.

For those already in the professional realm, job references and letters of recommendation are less like seasonal harvests and more like year-round crops, seemingly always in need of tending and cultivation. No matter which group you are in, it’s smart to have a strategy in place for those times when you are job hunting, applying for a fellowship or some other type of professional training, joining industry organizations or angling for a seat on the board of your favorite charity.


Good timing: Be sure to give the person you are asking for a letter of recommendation as much time as possible to write and send it. Some companies have online questionnaires that make the process of references easy and efficient, but the person filling it out still has to make time in their schedule to complete it. Two weeks or more is optimal for either one, but this is not always possible, which is why you’ll want to pay particular attention to the next point.


Build a team: It’s possible that you will occasionally find out about an opportunity last minute. It’s unfair to ask the same person over and over to write a recommendation letter for you or serve as a reference, even if you are able to give them a long lead time. Even worse is to ask them repeatedly for eleventh-hour recommendations. Take time to make a list of three to five teachers, mentors, colleagues, former colleagues and people you’ve worked with on charity or professional boards and committees. Call or email each one to ask if they would consider being a job reference or letter-of-recommendation writer for you. Perhaps it goes without saying, but make sure these are people with whom you are in good standing. Let them know you are making a list, so that you can always be prepared when you need a recommendation or reference, and that you immediately thought of them, because of the time and interest they have taken in you and your professional and pursuits, or that you enjoyed and are proud of the good work you with them on a certain project — whatever makes sense and is true regarding that individual. Request their email address, phone number and work or home address and also find out which one they prefer for recommendation and reference correspondence. Make note of it and file this information where you can quickly access it. (I have a Google document set up for this purpose.) Additionally, if one of your go-to team members is too swamped to meet the deadline, is out of town or has family obligations, you can just work your way down the list.


Give thanks: Once you have your team in place, send a quick, handwritten thank-you note to show your appreciation to each person for their support. Repeat this practice each time they provide a recommendation or reference for you.


Heads up: Even though you’ve obtained their permission in advance, it’s good form to alert people on your recommendation and reference team when a request is coming their way. Reference checks could come from the interviewer, his or her underlings or the human resources department. Most people don’t answer calls from unknown numbers and spam filters can grab unknown emails, so letting someone know ahead of time can eliminate time lapses, missed calls and lost emails.


Follow up: To be human is to err and also, despite the heads-up, it’s possible that a) the other person had an unusually busy week or your request slipped their mind or b) they didn’t get the call or email. A quick call, text or email confirmation to see if they finished the letter or heard from the company you interviewed with is a good idea.


If you follow this plan, the next time you need a recommendation letter or reference, the process will be seamless. Soon enough, you’ll make your way onto someone else’s team and you can pay it forward.