May 17, 2018

3 Ways to Respond to Reference Requests

When asked to be a reference, you may be excited to help out an old colleague that you enjoyed working with or, in the more uncomfortable cases, you might not have too many positive things to say about the person. In either case, once you are asked to be a reference, you must respond with your answer in a timely manner. 

This is just the first rule you should adhere to when handling reference requests - there is much more you should understand about how to be a reference. If you find yourself stuck in the process, or are a little unsure of what to do with your reference requests, then this article is for you! We will outline how you should deal with your reference requests in these three different parts: 

  1. Decide whether or not you will be a reference
  2. Write a reference letter
  3. Prepare for your reference call

Continue reading to learn the most updated reference etiquette rules you should be following when you get asked to be a reference. Let’s get started!

Choosing to be a Reference

When deciding whether or not to be a reference, remember that it’s not just about whether you like the person or not. It should be based on your experience with the person and on whether you can discuss qualifications and specific behaviors on the job.

If you choose to decline, It is important to let people know as soon as possible so they can organize asking someone else in a timely manner. If you don’t respond, they might list you anyway, and you will be caught off-guard and be forced to give a negative reference over the phone.

When turning down a reference request, you don’t have to be mean - just be brief and to the point. Something like “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I am the best person to speak on your qualifications” should suffice. This keeps it professional and prevents you from having to explain the reasons for your denial. Check out other tips on how to deny a reference request if you need more support in this area.

If you choose to be a reference, however, you will have to write a reference letter or prepare for a reference call. We go over how to do both below.

How to Write a Reference Letter

Once you’ve agreed to be a reference, there are usually two ways you will have to give your opinion on your colleague– a phone call, or a reference letter. In both cases, you will be focused on the same goal of highlighting the candidate’s qualifications. When writing a letter, however, there are no set questions to guide you. So what do you include?

First, gather as much information as you can. Of course, if you’ve accepted the request you should know the person well, but it may have been awhile since you last worked with them. Ask for their resume and about the position they are applying for. Also, make sure to get information on who to send the letter to or how to properly submit it.

The reference letter should be formatted professionally. When beginning your letter, if you haven’t been given a specific name, you can simply use “To Whom it May Concern”, “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” If you do have a name, address them, i.e. “Dear Ms. Brown.”

Next, you will want to introduce yourself and explain how you know the person you’re writing the letter for. Make sure to provide specific details about the company you work for, your current position, and how your position was related to the candidate’s (supervisor, manager, etc.). Here is a good time to make your first recommendation statement.

In the body of your letter, you will want to cover specific qualifications that you observed during your experience together with the candidate. You can talk about responsibilities she had and how she handled specific situations on the job. If you can, try to correspond these qualifications with the job description from the new position as much as possible. The body paragraphs should contain a good deal of information and not be too short. If you only provide a few lines it will be assumed that you really don’t know the person well and your opinion won’t mean a lot.

In closing, you will formally endorse the candidate. Also, make yourself available for any follow-up questions or requests for more information.

The format of your letter should be just like a professional business letter. Include both your contact information and the person you’re writing it to at the top of the page. Type out your name and sign it by hand as well. Use a readable, good-sized font (ex. Times New Roman, 12 point) and make it single-spaced. Always go over your letter to check for any grammatical errors or typos. Take a look at this reference template to see the aforementioned tips in action!

How to Prepare for a Reference Call

The reference call is an alternative to the reference letter that many employers choose. It may seem like the easier option for you, but it is still important to be prepared. First, do your research on the candidate and the job/company he is applying to. Spend some time thinking about his qualifications and specific instances where he used those skills on the job. You should also spending time thinking about the kinds of questions asked during reference calls so you are prepared with the answers you want to give.

The person requesting the recommendation will probably want to set up an appointment time. Make sure to be available during that time - a late, absent, or rushed recommendation will send a bad message. During the call, try to sound upbeat and enthusiastic – you are happy to recommend your candidate!

After being a reference, it is best to let the person you recommended know that you sent your letter or received a phone call, etc. This confirmation will give them some peace of mind during the stressful hiring process.

Do Your References the Right Way

When you get asked to be a reference, refer to this guide to make sure you are getting through the process effectively. Being considerate of other people's time and being prepared for your calls will make the hiring process easier on both sides. We wish you luck with your references and hope you come back to learn more about how to do your references the right way! If you need any more help with anything when it comes to the most effective recruiting strategies, reach out to our specialists for more advice.


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