How to Write a Powerful Recommendation Letter

Whether you’ve never written a recommendation letter before — or your tried-and-true method could use some updating — here are some tips, tricks, and best practices.

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How to Write a Powerful Recommendation Letter

Parting ways with an employee might strike business owners as a generally very negative experience, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes our best and brightest leave in order to advance their education, support a partner in their career, or pivot their career to something else entirely.

Businesses are always looking to find ways to show their appreciation for their employees while during their career at your company, but what about after? One of the best things you can do to show an employee how thankful you are for their service is by writing a glowing recommendation letter. But how?

Perhaps you’ve never written a recommendation letter before. Maybe you’ve done dozens of them but are wondering if your tried-and-true method could use some updating. Plus, it’s not always a cut and dry process — should you write the letter yourself, or let your employee whip it up and simply sign on the dotted line?

Here are some tips, tricks, and best practices for writing recommendation letters for your employees that are entering the next phase of their lives or careers.

Take the request seriously

Just because someone asks you to write a recommendation letter for them doesn’t mean that you have to say yes. This isn’t a situation in which you should lie. Imagine if you had an applicant with a glowing recommendation letter who ended up being anything but who was described in the letter.

You owe it to both your employee and their future employer to be honest. If you can’t honestly recommend someone, then politely decline the request for a recommendation letter.

You owe it to both your employee and their future employer to be honest. If you can’t honestly recommend someone, then politely decline the request for a recommendation letter.

If you do say yes, though, be prepared to accurately honor the request. Many jobs require a certain number of recommendation letters to complete the requirements of an application. If you say that you’ll write someone a recommendation letter, chances are they’re relying on you to do it and could very well have a problem on their hands if you fail to come through. If you’re too busy, let your employee know that you’d love to but that you can’t give it the attention it needs at this time.

If you agree to write a recommendation letter — as you should for anyone who you can honestly recommend after the work they put in for you and your company — be sure to deliver.

Follow requirements and norms

From length to format, if there are any submission guidelines, be sure to follow them so that your recommendation letter is appropriately received. The last thing you’d want is to put in the work of writing a letter for it to be disregarded because of a technicality.

Recommendation letters are not the place for waiting until the last minute. If there is a submission deadline, it’s best to submit your letter before the deadline.

Beyond that, the general rules for writing a recommendation letter are:

Use a business letter format and tone

These are professional communications, and you should treat them as such. This doesn’t mean that you should be overly stiff or impersonal, just that you should be professional throughout.

Share how you know the person and the nature of your professional relationship

How long did they work with or for you? Especially if you’ve known someone for a long time, be sure to note that in the letter.

Focus on one or two qualities

Rather than trying to cover everything about them as an employee in one page, focus on a few of their best qualities. As much as you can, focus on specific examples of the ways that this person has demonstrated the qualities you’re discussing.

Be as positive as possible

In a way, your letter is ideally being used to help them stand out among the crowd of other candidates so don’t shy away from any endorsements. If you’d rehire the person in a heartbeat or strongly recommend them without reservation, it’s very much ok to say so in a recommendation letter.

Share your contact information

It’s best practice to offer the potential new employer a way for getting in touch with you should they have any questions. Generally, a phone number, an email address, or both will suffice.

What if I just let my employee write their own recommendation letter?

If they provided you with some talking points, it’s your job to flesh them out, bring them to life, and provide context to and examples of them.

In reality, this happens. It’s not, however, the most ethical approach. If you know your employee well and are capable of writing the letter yourself, you certainly should. Those receiving the letter expect it to have come from the person whose name is on it.

That said, sometimes you want to help an excellent employee out. Sometimes requests for recommendation letters come in weeks, months, or years since you’ve last worked with someone. Sometimes the deadline requires a tight turnaround and you simply don’t have the time to write everything out yourself, but don’t want to say no to helping them out either. Just because you can’t remember details or can’t accommodate a deadline, does that mean you should decline?

If there’s no other way around it, asking for talking points or even for them to draft the letter for you isn’t out of the question. Submitting it without review is, though. Even if you rely on your employee to provide you the information you need, it is still your job to make the words your own. Take anything out that you wouldn’t stand behind if they wrote the letter themselves and add in anything additional that you believe is important. If they provided you with some talking points, it’s your job to flesh them out, bring them to life, and provide context to and examples of them.

Focus on how you’re making the employee look

Especially for those without practice, writing a recommendation letter can feel like a daunting process. But a lot of that trepidation can simply be about the unknown. Even if you’re not the strongest writer, never fear — it’s more about how it makes the employee look than the exact words on the page.

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