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letters of recommendation

One of our contributors recently reached out on social media to ask the following: How old is “too old” when it comes to offering letters of recommendation in an interview, from previous colleagues?

As with most things, every bit of job advice is subjective.  And when it comes to letters of recommendation, there’s a lot of murky water to drift through.  During our formative years, letters of recommendation were quite common; however, with waning company loyalty and advances in technology, social media, and personal branding, recommendations have taken on many new forms.

First off, old-school letters of recommendation are not as commonly requested as they once were a decade ago in the interview process (and can actually surprise some hiring mangers when they receive them.)  The decline in requesting recommendations is probably because they can be so easily manipulated or faked due to all the advances in technology as well as the realm of social media, such as LinkedIn, poking in on the traditional terrain with their own recommendations.  (Of course that can be a whole other discussion on their relevance to the hiring cycle.)

Also, many companies now look to live references that they can verify as opposed to recommendations that are stagnant. But, for the shrewd job seeker who wants a traditional edge in the interview process, feels that their recommendations are note worthy, or who is going through an interview process where they are still required, here are some good rules of thumb for utilizing recommendations:

Stay relevant.  The last 3 years of your work experience are usually the most applicable to the role you’re interviewing for so recommendations from this time period will hold the most weight. Hiring Managers want to know how you will succeed in the current role and your current performance is a better indicator of that.

If you need to reach back further, you can go out 5 years, more than that can be a stretch.  Realize that people can change a lot over a 5 year period and understand why a recommendation from 7 years ago may not be of interest or be completely irrelevant as well as feel like you’re stretching to get the hiring manager’s attention.

If you’re still connected with someone as a personal reference from a previous job, don’t be afraid to ask them if they’d be willing to supply an updated recommendation based on what they’ve witnessed of your growth personally and professionally.  This can be a way around the 3-5 year rule if needed, but the more recent the experience discussed is generally better (Unless of course you have something really noteworthy or impressive like a gleaming recommendation from a former president or CEO of a major company, let’s say.)

Tell a story. If you’ve been at a company longer than 3 years or it’s difficult to get recommendations from your current employers, use your past recommendations to tell a story.  Having a recommendation from each of your last few jobs that shows career progression and growth can be valuable in helping a hiring manager see your potential worth.  And, feel free to quickly and tactfully point out that chain of development when handing over the letters.

Also, when leaving an organization on good terms, don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation on your way out (and provide the person with an outline of some of the highlights of your employment or a sample draft to work from) while you are still fresh on your colleagues’ minds.  Asking for this after you’re gone can lead to generic recommendations, poor follow-up, or feelings of resentment due to pressures of your role being reassigned.

Recommendations can also be a good way to help explain away gaps in employment or unresolved items that may be plaguing your resume and give the hiring manager a boost in their confidence to consider you.

Edit. Glowing recommendations are great.  However, everyone knows that recommendations can be manufactured or full of fluff.  If you want recommendations to work in your favor, make sure they are clear, short, and to the point, especially if they were not requested for the interview process.  Just like a resume, hiring managers don’t want to have to wade through the filler to get to the gold.  (This is why providing a sample draft or outline of what you’d like the recommendation giver to note can be helpful.)

Also, pare down the number of recommendations you supply to the most pertinent.  It’s great that you may have 9 or 10 letters glowing about how awesome you are, but again, it can be overkill for hiring managers who are strapped for time and it can look like you are trying too hard.  Pick the strongest 2-4 letters that help support the story you want to tell.

Double Up. If you want your recommendations to have more weight, where possible, double up your recommendation givers as references.  If the hiring manager knows this person can be reached out to in order to supply additional information, they’re more likely to be open to reading their praise of you.

Additionally, make sure the contact information for the provider is relevant as this information can change over time with job shifts, etc.

Go digital. It’s great to hand over a paper copy in the interview of a recommendation, but many online application processes allow you to attach extra information to your profile.  Have a recommendation giver submit a non-editable document or scan their recommendation into a pdf to upload these with your application.  It may give your profile a boost for discerning hiring managers.

While there is some controversy over the relevancy of things like LinkedIn recommendations, do what you can to support your personal brand online.  Ask for meaningful recommendations that set you apart on social media sites.

Or, go one step further and ask permission to take excerpts from recommendations to place as testimonials on a personal website or page promoting your resume or career aspirations (or even in cover letters.) Don’t be afraid to get creative if it’s mutually beneficial for you and the recommendation giver. Make sure you stand out offline and online.

There is no one right answer as trends with recommendations wax and wane over the years.  But, using these rules of thumb as a guidepost will help you figure out what helps you to stand out as a candidate.

What tips would you give for utilizing recommendations in the Interview? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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