should my boss proactively email a prospective employer to recommend me?

A reader writes:

I’m applying for a job in research at a big university, and a career coach gave me the following advice: in addition to submitting my resume and cover letter through the online system, I should also have my current boss (principle investigator) email the hiring manager with a short and sweet “hey, my assistant applied for the position of research assistant, she’s very capable and skilled, etc. let me know if you have questions.” He said to cc the lead research scientist on this as well (who does hold sway in the hiring process-it’s his lab, after all). 

My boss said she’d be happy to do that, but expressed hesitation at emailing someone she doesn’t know with information about someone they don’t know. Should we do it, or is it just another annoyance to the hiring manager and I should let me resume and c.l. speak for themselves? Are there rules for this sort of thing in higher ed hiring vs. the business world?

It can be worth doing if the email is going to really rave about you. If it’s going to sound generic or tepid (which hopefully you can figure out from your relationship with your boss and her personality), skip it.

I’ve done this for a small number of people before — employees who I thought were absolutely amazing — and as far as I know, each time I did it, they ended up getting an interview.

But I’ve also been on the receiving end of this where the boss’s letter just wasn’t that enthusiastic — reading more like a generic letter of reference that the boss had written as a favor. Those don’t work. In order for it to be successful, the note has to give the reader the sense that the boss considers you truly above and beyond, that she feels she’s doing the employer a favor by tipping them off to you. Every boss is searching for rock stars — if the letter conveys that that’s who you are, any smart hiring manager is going to be excited to take a longer look at you.

Which means that your boss needs to (a) really feel that way about you and (b) be capable of conveying that in an email. If she considers you average or the letter sounds like she does, it doesn’t really get you anywhere … but it’s also still not rude for her to reach out on your behalf, so she shouldn’t hesitate on that account.

To be clear, it doesn’t carry as much weight as if your manager actually was connected in some way to the person they’re emailing — that’s always going to be more compelling. But it’ll still probably get you a closer look.

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. Inside the Philosophy Factory*

    If your boss is a PI for your current university, then they should e-mail their peer and CC the hiring manager.

    This is really common in academia. In fact, if your boss knows the other PI and doesn't send this kind of an e-mail, the hiring PI will think it's kind of odd…. at least this is the fact in the humanities.

  2. Ursula*

    This is something I'm asking a couple of my former colleagues to do lately. I'm trying to get back in to the company I worked at before I had kids, and I figure every little bit helps. These are also people I use as my references, and I know they think highly of my work. They are also well regarded themselves, which helps.
    I apply through the normal channels and have my former colleagues send my cover and resume along with an enthusiastic recommendation. If, for some reason, HR didn't forward my information to the hiring manager, he/she can then ask for it if my resume and cover look promising to them.
    I wish I had started doing it at the beginning of my job search. Lesson learned!
    Good luck to you!

  3. Emily*

    Hi All,

    Thanks for the advice, it is really helpful as I am REALLY new to this whole gig (I'm 22 and in my first job out of college…) My boss does NOT know this PI, as it is in a slightly different field than hers. It's also in an entirely different university in another state. That's why I was hesitant to have her send the email. I know she would be very enthusiastic, which is a big plus.

    Also, most research labs work similarly and the take-home message should really be about my capabilities as an assistant/worker and not necessarily about the ins and outs of that particular lab–one can easily learn the technology but it's harder to learn qualities such as reliability. That was my read on the situation. Barring the fact that she doesn't know this particular lab/PI, I think I will have her send it out.

    Thanks again, and any other comments are most welcome!

  4. Anonymous*

    I work for a large research university hospital, and this is SOP in our labs. As a matter of fact, if there's no email from the previous PI to the new PI, it's likely to be seen as a bad sign.

    Plus, and this is why I'm commenting anonymously… Researchers are a strange breed. A significant number of them just don't GET interpersonal communication (if you watch the Big Bang Theory, well, my coworkers and I find that show terrifically funny because it's *US*). Even if the email says, "Juana is applying for a job with you, she is adequate in carrying out her job duties", that's better than no email at all.

  5. Cassie*

    It seems quite common in academia (especially science/engineering fields; can't speak for the arts/humanities as I haven't worked in them). Most of the ones I've seen tend to have some kind of personal connection, like "I attended a lecture by so-and-so in your faculty" or "my thesis advisor was a student of your thesis advisor". The connections mentioned may be a bit distant – your PI doesn't have to be on a first-name basis with the hiring PI in order to send a friendly email.

  6. Gemma*

    I find this really interesting as I've worked in HR in a number of UK universities. This is totally not the done thing in the UK and would be looked on very oddly by any researchers/lecturers/HR people but is obviously normal for the US. Thanks for teaching me something new!

  7. Isabel*

    It is not that common outside of academia for a boss to email a prospective employer proactively. A lot of time, the job search itself is confidential. Hence, if this practice is more standard in academia, then I would like to think of it almost like a recommendation letter. It is normal for candidates to bring recommendation letters along with them to the interview. If the letters are stellar, the recommendations could favorably impact the interview's outcome.

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