A recommendation letter plays a specific role in the world of Human Resources and employment. It's occasionally needed, but never preferred. Employers would rather speak directly with the former supervisors of their prospective employees. However, employers realize that direct communication is not always possible - hence the importance of the recommendation letter.
Employees lose track of supervisors when they move, change jobs, or retire. Businesses move and close or are merged or acquired. Human Resources departments lose records.
Even employees who make the effort to stay in touch with a prior supervisor as a potential reference, and prepare their references for a reference check, can lose track of their supporters over time. In one of my efforts to obtain references about a potential employee, I found one company out of business, one supervisor moved to places unknown, and one supervisor who had died. Fortunately, one of the three companies had an HR office that had a record of the employee and was able to confirm employment details – but nothing else.
I have mixed emotions about a recommendation letter. As I state in How to Respond to a Reference Check Request, a recommendation letter lasts forever and its contents may not apply years after the recommendation letter is written. But, a recommendation letter is a potential gift for a valued employee.
A recommendation letter can save the day. Written on company stationery, with a clearly printed address and telephone, the recommendation letter provides a sometimes needed boost to an applicant’s credentials. As an employer, particularly if you anticipate changes, such as I have just described, in your business situation, do your exiting employees a favor. Supply the employee with a recommendation letter.
Write a Recommendation Letter
A recommendation letter can last forever and is a snapshot of an employee’s performance at a certain moment in time. Consequently, give thought and care to how you write a recommendation letter and to the information that your recommendation letter conveys. Follow your company policy in regard to a recommendation letter, if a policy exists.
In any case, ask your Human Resources department to review your recommendation letter so that you are certain that you are protecting your company’s and your own best interests. Write an employee recommendation letter following these guidelines.
- Provide the recommendation letter on original company stationery with printed address, phone, and additional contact information in a standard business letter format. You can provide the employee with several copies of the recommendation letter on stationery in a stationery envelope. (This may discourage the bad practice of repeatedly photocopying a recommendation letter - forever.)
- Address the recommendation letter to the specific employer who is requesting the recommendation letter, or to whom the employee plans to send, the recommendation letter. If the recommendation letter is generic, address the letter to: "To Whom It May Concern."
- Sign the recommendation letter in ink and include your name, job title, phone extension, and email address.
- Begin with: This is a letter of recommendation for: Employee’s Name.
- Describe your relationship to the employee, the employee’s job title, and the employee’s job. For example, “I was Mark’s supervisor when he worked as a skilled trades machine operator in the Lathe Department at Alcon Tool.”
- For the main components of the recommendation letter, describe the key responsibilities of the employee’s job. For example, “Mark’s main responsibilities were operating x machine; maintaining company tools and equipment; creating a safe and well-kept work area; troubleshooting quality, machine, and performance problems; serving as the day shift team leader; backing me up as substitute supervisor in my absence; and serving as the head of the employee involvement team.
- Then, in the body of the recommendation letter, provide your overall assessment of the employee’s contribution and value. The statement should reflect that the assessment is for Mark’s performance at a certain point in time. For example, “Mark was a valued employee who contributed well above the norm when he worked in my department. This is apparent and was recognized by his assignment to leadership roles.”
- State why Mark left your employment in the recommendation letter if the reasons are supportive for Mark's next employment opportunity. For example, “Mark left Alcon Tool to accept the position of supervisor at another company. A supervisor job would not have been available here for several years.”
- Finish the recommendation letter on a positive note. For example, “We were sorry to see Mark go but wished him all the best in his new job as supervisor.”
- Finally, state that the potential employer can contact you if he or she needs additional information. Sign and complete the recommendation letter.
These are the appropriate components of an employee recommendation letter.
What Not to Write in a Recommendation Letter
Certain cautions are in order before you write an employee a recommendation letter. When you write a recommendation letter do not make statements of this kind. Do not:
- Provide details that you may not know for sure if they were outside of the confines of the employee’s employment with your firm. For example, don’t name the company for which you believe the employee went to work. You may not know if the employee was ever employed there. You were told by Mark that he had accepted a job as a supervisor. Your recommendation letter should not provide potentially conflicting information that might cause later problems for the employee in his or her job search.
- Predict the future. The only performance that you can remark on is the performance that you experienced while the employee worked for you. Anything else is crystal ball gazing and inappropriate for a recommendation letter. This is inappropriate: “I am sure that you will receive the same exemplary performance from Mark that we did when he worked for Alcon Tool.” Times change; lives change; unpredictable events occur. To you or a potential employer ten years down the road, this is unverifiable.
- Provide personal, protected, or confidential personnel information of any kind such as salary, social security number, race, religion, marital status, family composition, medical problems or age. (An actual recommendation letter I once received said that the supervisor was sure that Betty would improve her attendance and be an excellent employee now that her divorce was final, her childcare problems had been resolved, and her former husband had moved out-of-state. I’m sure that the supervisor meant this recommendation in a positive way.)
- Provide anything other than factual information that you can directly, with personal experience, report.
A copy of the recommendation letter, after review by Human Resources, should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.