A Reference Letter is Not a Reference

I was going through a box of old files this weekend and found a reference letter that a candidate brought with her to an interview.

The letter is dated 1987 I think.

Anyway this person was from Hong Kong and I guess women had a different place in the workforce over there because her boss ( a man) wrote that she was a good worker because she was:

"silent, diligent and obedient".

I still laugh when I read that letter.

But it got me to thinking about references letters in general. I have some candidates come to me with binders full of glowing reference letters that they are quite proud of. Some of them want me to read them right then and there (I don't) and some take them to interviews as well.

So as much as it hurts me to tell you all this, I feel it's important.

I don't care one whit about what's in your reference letter. It means zero to me.

If I want a reference I will call your former boss up directly and speak to him or her. Reference letters are often canned and are full of generalities and low on specifics.

I posted some of my reference questions in an earlier post but since our permalinks are screwed here they are again:

1 Did you hire this candidate – if so why? Did he/she live up to your expectations why/why not?

2 What did the candidate accomplish during his/her time there?

3 How was he/she perceived by internal stakeholders?

4 How would you rate this person’s influencing skills?

5 How would you rate this person’s ability to operate independently?

6 How would you rate this person’s time management skills?

7 What are this person’s strong points?

8 How do they compare to others who have done the same job?

9 How would you rate them overall on a scale of 1-10. What do they have to do to get closer to 10?

10 What areas were you coaching this person on? Did he/she improve? How does he/she take constructive criticism and feedback?

11 Did he/she ever disappoint you?

12 What motivates this person?

13 How does a manager get the best performance out of him/her?

14 Why did this person leave? Are they eligible for rehire?

Ask yourself is all of this information on your reference letter?

More importantly will the person who wrote this letter accept a call? Some people come to me with a reference letter and then tell me that it isn't ok to call the person who wrote it.

This is a major red flag.

First of all - what if the person didn't write it? Maybe you just put some stuff on company letterhead and signed it. I have no idea what your bosses signature looks like so how would I know the difference?

Second if the person believes in you so strongly that he or she wrote this letter why he would he or she not take a phone call in order to further expound on your greatness?

Don't get me wrong I am not saying that if you are given a reference letter from an former employer you should turn it down.

But you should really get clearance from that person to take a phone call from a recruiter or future employer to give you a real reference.

If they won't do it your reference letter isn't worth the paper it's written on.

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