Past Issues / Subscribe | Magazine |
  Official eNewsletter of the National Black MBA Association, Inc.  

How to Write a Great Letter of Reference

Print Print this article

By Marie Bouvier

Writing letters of reference for departing employees can be a real challenge for managers. If you don't know how to start, you put off writing the letter, then end up scribbling a mediocre recommendation at the last minute. A poorly written recommendation letter won't help your employee's chances – and may even hurt them.

A strong letter of reference will help your staffers win new jobs and assist them in future job searches. There are a few keys to writing really good reference letters. Keep them in mind, and you'll be able to help your employees – even when they're no longer working for you.

1. Know your company's policies.
Companies differ greatly on their policies for letters of reference. Some companies require that reference letters be approved through human resources. Some refuse to provide referrals in any form, citing potential slander and libel concerns.

While most companies will allow you to write referrals for your own staff, it is imperative that you know your company's policies before you write a letter of reference. If you're planning to use company letterhead for the letter, use it appropriately. It's not worth putting your own job on the line. If your company has strict guidelines, write a private letter of reference on your personal letterhead instead. 

2. Do your research.
You may not remember all of your employee's projects, so don't be afraid to track down additional information before you compose the letter. Take a look at old performance reviews. Request an updated copy of their resume. Ask if there are particular projects they would like for you to highlight. This will help you compose a stronger letter.

3. Consider your employee's best attributes and skills.
Before you write the reference letter, make a list of the employee's attributes and skills. Which of these skills did you rely on most as a manager?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers created a list of attributes, skills, and qualities that employers look for in job candidates. Consider which of these skills you would want in a potential employee; then compare your employee's skill list.

  • Leadership
  • Goal achievement
  • Intelligence
  • Direction
  • Self-confidence
  • Initiative
  • Willingness to accept responsibility
  • Imagination
  • Flexibility
  • Ability to communicate
  • Appropriate vocational skills
  • Energy level
  • Ability to handle conflict
  • Competitiveness
  • Self-knowledge
  • Interpersonal skills

4. If you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all.
You're not required to write letters of reference for your employees; it's a professional courtesy. If you don't feel you can honestly refer an employee to other employers, politely decline to write the letter.

When you do decide to write a referral letter, keep it positive. It's not a time to rehash old issues or point out an employee's shortcomings. Focus on your employee's best assets and make them shine.  Create a winning picture of why the employee would be an asset to the hiring company.

5. Compose a businesslike letter with strong content.
Start by listing the employee's role and your role. Provide the length of employment or the length of time you have known the employee. Then offer a general statement of recommendation.

Follow this up with more detail. Explain why you believe this person is a good candidate. Be factual, referencing specific skills, projects, and training. And give a clear idea of the impact of the employee's work. Use strong, descriptive words throughout the letter to emphasize the employee's best qualities.

Summarize with a final statement of recommendation. Conclude by offering to provide additional information to the reader. Be sure to include your contact information.

6. Offer to provide a draft of the letter of reference to the employee.
Before you finalize the letter, give your employee a draft of the reference letter. You want to be open about the praise you provide, but you also want a double check to see if there are any key projects or skills that have been omitted inadvertently.

You may wish to maintain a copy of the letter for your files. If potential employers call you, particularly years in the future, it will help to have a copy of the letter at hand.

Writing a great letter of reference is a skill that is easily learned, and one that will be appreciated by your staff members. Take the time to compose really strong recommendations for your employees, and you'll be recognizing them for a job well done.

Marie Bouvier is a professional business writer and editor with WordSculpture. She creates business letters and marketing collateral for a wide range of corporate clients. For more information, visit

National Black MBA Association, Inc.
1 E. Wacker Dr., 35th Floor
Chicago, IL 60601
Phone   -  (312) 236-BMBA (2622)
Fax       -  (312) 236-0390