Giving a good reference can be a nerve-racking task. You want to make sure you provide a positive and glowing portrait of the candidate, but you also need to make sure your honest information helps the candidate get the job that’s right for them.
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Do Your Best to Prepare
Ask the candidate to provide you with a description of the company, job description or job post so you have an idea of what types of skills, work ethics, or work culture you may be speaking to. It may also be helpful to see the resume used in the application so you have a better understanding of how the candidate is choosing to represent themselves. You may offer to provide the candidate with a letter of reference. Be sure to discuss how you will be representing them as a professional or personal reference.
If you find that you begin to feel uneasy about your ability to represent the candidate well, or unsure if you feel confident in giving them a reference, let them know. In this situation, it is best to be honest and upfront rather than misrepresent the candidate or harm their chances of future employment.
Be Ready for Common Reference Questions
Compose answers to frequently asked questions such as:
- What are their greatest strengths and weaknesses?
- Why did they leave their last position/position at your company?
- What was their most noteworthy accomplishment?
- How would you describe/rate on a scale of 1-10 the candidate’s abilities? (punctuality, attention to detail, accuracy, dependability, ability to work with others, initiative, etc.)
- What were their duties?
- How would you rate their overall job performance?
- Would you hire this person again?
Write It Down
It is easy to get carried away in conversation and forget details you would like to express. Create a bullet point list or write notes of a few qualities or assets you think are important to mention or would like to elaborate on. These notes are informal and not a reference letter — the purpose is to be a reminder for you.
Highlight Relevant Skills and Qualities
You want to rave about the incredible qualities the candidate had while in their previous employment, but these skills may not be completely relevant to the new position. Discuss the position with the candidate thoroughly and go over the job post in detail to find ways to reference meaningful skills that are applicable to the job opening.
Be Specific When You Can
Telling a prospective job that the candidate is dependable is a compliment, but doing so does not provide the information that will help get them hired. Give an example of a time that the candidate really pulled through on a project, took the initiative to get something specific done, or behaved to provide constant support to their team members. Offer clearly defined and contextual examples that show the candidate embodies the trait you are describing.
Be as Positive as Possible
The employer may ask you to speak on weaknesses of the candidate. They are trying to get an accurate scope of the individual they wish to hire. Strive to frame answers in a positive light while retaining an accurate description. If the candidate struggled with speaking up and delivering ideas in meetings, mention that they are aware that group discussions aren’t their strong suit and they are actively working on improving it (if they are).
Helping the prospective employer understand where the candidate may need extra support in their training will set up both parties for success.
Always Be Honest
You are not being asked to be dishonest. Give a good reference by providing honest and thoughtful information — there is no need to be brutal or unkind in your honesty, but offering a reliable description also lends credibility to you as a reference.
If there are specific issues about the candidate you know you may be asked that are potentially uncomfortable, discuss these beforehand so all parties are aware of how the conversation will be approached.
In turn, the feedback you are providing is seen as credible, which strengthens the position of the candidate in their potential employment.
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