how can I be a great reference for a former coworker?

A reader writes:

A former coworker reached out to me via LinkedIn recently to ask if I’d be willing to serve as a reference for him during his job search. He is leaving the company where I used to work in a role that was semi-managerial. He was a great coworker and valuable member of our team, so I agreed, but I’m not sure what I need to do to be prepared to give him the reference he deserves.

I’ve never been asked to serve as a reference before, so I honestly don’t know what I just agreed to and what the most professional way to approach this is. Most of the advice I’ve seen is regarding people for whom you don’t feel comfortable giving a good reference. Any tips you could provide on what to be sure to mention or avoid and how to stay within the boundaries of professional (rather than personal) comments would be great.

Well, first, good for you for thinking about this in advance rather than just winging it once you get the reference call. A lot of references don’t bother to prepare, and as a result don’t give the information that could most help the person they’re recommending.

The best thing that you can do is to take a few minutes to think about what made this colleague good at his job. Why did you enjoy working with him? What about him stood out? What did he achieve during his time there? What is he strongest at? And then, on the opposite side, what could he work on improving in? What types of jobs would he not be a good fit for?

You don’t need to spend more than a few minutes thinking this through, but the mere act of doing it will help you surface pertinent information when a reference-checker calls you. And if you’re someone who likes to have notes, don’t be shy about making a few notes for yourself either.

Then, when you get the reference call, you’ll be prepared to talk. Most reference-checkers will have a prepared list of questions to ask you, so don’t worry that you’ll be expected to deliver a monologue. You’ll simply response to the person’s questions, making sure to emphasize your former colleague’s strengths.Keep your answers focused on his work life; it’s fine to comment on his work, his attitude at work, and his relations with managers coworkers, but not on things related to his health or personal life.

And the more specific you can be in your answers, the better.“John was great to work with” is nice to hear, but “John never missed a deadline, went out of his way to ensure his work with flawless and free of errors, and was one of the most creative people on our staff when it came to generating workable ideas to increase revenue” is much more useful.

Also keep in mind that the reference-checker is going to be paying attention to how enthusiastic you are. A lot of information can be conveyed through your tone, and if you really think highly of this colleague, make sure that your tone conveys it. Don’t hesitate to be openly enthusiastic if that reflects how you really feel. There’s a big difference between “John would be welcome to reapply with us in the future” and “I would move heaven and earth to hire John back again if I could.” If the latter is closer to how you feel, say so! This isn’t the time to be circumspect.

On the other hand, if your assessment of is more lukewarm than that, don’t gush effusively just because you think you’re supposed to. The value of references isn’t just that they help employers make good hires (although they do); it’s also that they help job candidates end up in roles that are the best match for them. So be open and honest, and you’ll have done your job well.

{ 10 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie

    The link isn’t working for me. I tried Firefox, IE, Chrome, and Safari.

    (Habit from maintaining a web page – check all browsers)

  2. Runon

    Glad to hear notes are ok. I generally try to keep them where I can get at them quick (like in the contact notes field in my email) but I like to have them in front of me when I’m talking about someone. They are usually just a few bullets with shiny words.

    * takes direction and follows procedure very meticulously
    * showed initiative and researched new opportunities

    Are these good kinds of things to say about people (very different people)?

    1. fposte

      I think how good they are depends on what they were expected to do and how enthusiastically you make a case for the contribution. I could see those, especially the first, as damning with faint praise, too (“How was he as your Marketing Director?” “Well, he followed procedure very meticulously”). If I thought the person in your first example was a really good employee, I’d talk about it in terms of reliability and the diminished need to supervise as a result (“If you give a task to Wakeen, it’s guaranteed–he’ll check with you to make sure he understands and then it’ll be done to perfection without your ever needing to follow up”).

      But I also think that it needs to fit in your own voice and the situation.

      1. Runon

        These were both for people in first jobs. The first one I don’t want to damn with faint praise, she was great, she was just a horrible employee for me and I was a horrible boss for her. Give her a detail procedure and she followed perfectly no worry about her going off and trying her own thing because she thought it would be easier or faster. But very little of our work was like that and it made it difficult. She had since worked somewhere she thrived because it was all about following those steps. It was just a really bad environment match.

        1. fposte

          I think that you pretty much have it covered–here’s her strength, and it’s actually not something we make a lot of use here, so she’d be a great fit in a job that did.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      In addition to fposte’s point, I would also say to be more specific. These are really generalities — you can start there, but then you want to add concrete examples to illustrate them.

  3. fposte

    Sub-question–I was recently asked in what area the candidate could improve. This seems a bit like the reference’s “What are your weaknesses?”, and I gave a lame-ish answer about a not-too-significant area where she was absolutely at the level I would have expected (she was otherwise well above that level), and I’m not crazy about that. Does a reference have more room for pushback on that kind of question than a candidate, or does that just look like I’m too uncritical a reference?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Absolutely, it’s totally fine for a reference to say, “Honestly, she was amazing. There was nothing I needed her to do differently.”

      If the reference is overall really enthusiastic about the person aside from that answer, that answer is going to ring true. If, on the other hand, the reference is providing a sort of low-key, lukewarm assessment and then says that, it’s going to sound like they’re just not being thoughtful enough about it, or that they don’t want to expend the effort to give good answers.

      1. fposte

        Great, thanks. I think I was clear enough overall that she’s fabulous and it was clear that it took me a while to think of anything even to mention, so I don’t think it will hurt her, but I suspect this won’t be the last time I encounter the question.

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