Let’s say you work several years at a job, but feel you would like to move up in your position. No promotion slots available for the foreseeable future, you decide to try and take a job elsewhere. Leaving your current job on amicable terms, you might ask for a letter of recommendation (LoR). Makes sense, who better to vouch for your abilities than a former boss or supervisor? The ethos driven encomium is ripe with “hire this person, you’ll love them”.
While these letters can be great, there are several issues. In this post I’m going to cover common, often unforeseen, problems I’ve encountered with the LoR and alternatives to overcoming such obstacles. If you’re a person that frequently writes these letters, this post is for you as well.
Unspoken Expiration Date
Think about the requirements of a letter. Sure, there’s the meaty part where you say what you are going to say, but there are other requirements. A valid signature, a letter head, and the date are all required for the genre of a formal letter. That date can cause a lot of issues. I should know, I’ve experienced it.
After working the max 400 hours at my YMCA internship years ago I asked my supervisor for a LoR. I was given a glowing letter that really helped me get into grad school (as an extra piece, I still had to have 3 from former profs). After grad school, I kept a copy of the letter with my resume. I went to interview after interview where the letter was quickly skimmed, given a nod of approval, then looking at the date started to discuss the validity of the document. “Don’t you have any, more recent, letters? This one is 3 years old”, I remember one interviewer asking. I didn’t and I didn’t get the job. At some point it was better to just leave the letter out to avoid the obvious question of timeliness.
You can’t update the date on the letter, but you can ask your most recent employers for a new one. At that point keep all of them! You now have a stack with a track record of your consistency. If you can’t get more recent letters, consider what you can add that is more timely, like updating your references.
Letter says, “x”, but I need “y”
This is an odd issue. I’ve been in interviews where the interviewer was so focused on finding one specific quality or skill, but because they were laser-focussed they couldn’t see the synonym in front of their face. “This says your research skills are bar none, that’s great, but I need someone that can find information for me”, I had to hesitate to point out those were the same thing.
This is where you need to outshine the stack of papers that define you in the interview. Remember, your CV, your resume, all those LoR, are all just tools to communicate your skills. Unless you need to show a very specific technical skill, like html or python, practice communicating your abilities with friends and family.
You should also rewrite all your other materials to match the job description language. Try to notice the gaps in your LoR. List those gaps if need be and practice building yourself up.
Don’t you have someone “higher up” that could write you a letter?
This is an uncomfortable statement. I have had several letters from former managers and supervisors, but being asked for someone “higher up” almost seems upsetting, like your letter wasn’t good enough already! Most likely, you put your best foot forward in an interview. If there was a letter from someone higher up, don’t you think you would have provided it?
While this is overtly condescending, it is a tactic that serves a purpose in interviews. The interviewer wants to see how you react. They also want you to discuss your references. They know the person that best vouches for your skills is the person responsible for your performance and that letter is your best evidence. You can try to remind them of that fact. You can also point out your references and their availability to vouch for your skills. Be ready to talk about who your references are and why they are important.
Most importantly, remain calm. Take a breath and dive in when ready.
A few alternatives
Linkedin – You should be giving your coworkers recommendations when they leave and regular endorsements while working with them. It’s also okay to ask your coworkers to give you some kudos. It’s less work than a full letter and helps just the same. It’s also nice to have something from people that asking for a letter of rec would be inappropriate. “But Karen from HR said she heard I was great at project management!”. No, just…no.
Blog/Professional Website – Having a personal website has been the rage for the last decade. They can be your biggest asset or your worst nightmare. A polished clean website with plenty of great info on your past experiences can really propel you forward in the job market. Heck, a great blog is better than any resume in my honest opinion. There are lawyers I wouldn’t trust to get me a bucket of water if they were swimming in a lake based on their website, but show me their awesome blog and you have made me a permanent referral source. A bad website can be kryptonite to an interview,
Portfolio – They are not just for artists or journalists. You can create a portfolio that showcases all sorts of work. I’ve seen landscapers take pictures of their yard work, scientists with example research, and even technical writers with sets of instructions. If there is any way your work has a visible component either make a copy or take a picture. Keep collecting. Do be careful if your company has a knowledge protection clause in your contract. You don’t want to be fired for sharing sensitive information with a competitor. If you don’t use your past experiences to build a portfolio, you can share them through social media or keep track of past successes. It never hurts to remember what you’ve accomplished.
Even if you’re not looking for a job or applying to a program you should be considering who you could ask for letters of recommendation. On the other hand, consider the people you might write letters. It’s great to think about all the work and effort your peers put into their daily lives. It makes you appreciate them all the better.
Really, it’s also good practice to talk about your accomplishments. It’s a type of rhetoric that seems counteractive to being humble, but in reality humility is not the same as self-deprecation. It’s okay to consciously think about the good things you do for others, so long as nothing entitling comes from it.
As always I hope that you found something useful to add to your everyday rhetoric repertoire. If you found this post through social media, please give a shout out. Likewise, if you have a blog that you’d like me to share, I’d love to give you the kudos you deserve. Thank you for reading, I’ll catch you later this week with another Casual Friday post.