Are Letters of Recommendation Still Relevant?

When the topic is recommendation letters, opinions in the hiring community quickly become heated. Tons of  conflicting information has been published about how to ask for a recommendation, if you should draft them yourself, who to ask, and when to submit them to an employer.  Amidst all the confusion, one thing is clear.  Fewer employers are even bothering to request recommendations from prospective hires during the screening process. Despite this recent trend, job seekers should still have at least a few references on standby during a search, in case an employer asks for them.  Scrambling at the last second and risking a potentially bad reference is a catastrophic mistake that might prevent an offer.  Instead, identify individuals ahead of time that are familiar with your recent work and can speak to your strengths.  It’s best to get commitments from 3-5 trusted individuals, in a variety of working relationships including managers, employees, customers and peers or colleagues.  This gives a future employer a broad view of your capabilities from many perspectives and also demonstrates you are aware of your role on multiple levels. When identifying individuals to serve as references, it’s OK to given them a list of recommended talking points.  This can include a specific project, role, or other aspects of your working relationship.  This is not a script for them to read from or to quote in a formal letter.  Rather, this again ensures employers get a broad view of your work across multiple projects and from different perspectives instead of leaving it to chance that each reference will not draw upon the same projects, skills or personal qualities.  If requesting written letters, it’s OK to offer an outline or even a rough draft, but avoid writing the entire letter verbatim.  It’s obvious to employers when letters are all written by the same person.  They become meaningless and actually create mistrust.  If the person you request is too busy to write the letter, then move on.  Don’t hold a grudge.  It’s a lot to ask of someone, and unfortunately many people are just too busy.  They are actually doing you a favor by saying no.  The alternative is saying yes and then writing a weak letter because they just didn’t have the time to do it right. Both formal letters and standby references should be from work assignments dating back no more than a few years.  If you haven’t worked with the individual recently, it’s likely he or she will not remember important details about your working relationship, and thus will not provide an outstanding reference.  The same holds true for written recommendations.  Although the detail may have been fresh when the letter was written, older letters aren’t as relevant to your current skills and abilities.  Ideally you’ve grown since then. Or perhaps some of those mad skills in the 5 year old letter are no longer relevant today. As for timing, it’s best to hold off on offering references or letters until requested by the employer.  If you have a written letter and it helps to illustrate a point or answer a question during a face to face interview, it’s OK to share the hard copy.  Otherwise, wait until asked.  For one, if submitted with an employment application and the employer does check, it means a lot of calls for your reference. It’s not realistic to ask a reference to respond for every opportunity as part of a lengthy job search.  At some point, they will stop answering the phone or responding to the emails, meaning you will get an unverified reference check.  Also, some employers might misread the move to provide early references as insecurity.  Your skills and abilities should stand on their own. Online and social media references are not a substitute for having verifiable references or written letters available for an employer.  Although they are helpful and are now a common part of the recruiting and hiring process, online references don’t yet carry the same weight.  They are often very short and thus don’t provide key details employers are looking for.  Also, in many cases online references and recommendations are much harder to verify and to follow-up with the author. Armed with all this good information about recommendations, the question still remains.  Are letters of recommendation useful? The answer is, it depends.  In academic circles, letters of recommendation are still widely used, and often required.  However, in the business world, there is a definite trend away from letters, formal recommendations, and even reference checks.  However, if an employer does ask, and you are not prepared, you lose.  So until there is a movement in HR circles to retire the practice completely, it looks like the letter of recommendation is not yet down for the count.