It happens to many managers: A former employee reaches out to you asking for a letter of recommendation. Depending on how well you worked with them — and the circumstances of their departure from your company — you might be able to write one quickly. Or it might require more time and consideration.
And if this is new territory for you, you may be wondering whether you should even agree to write one. Either way, the questions that arise are the same: What details and praise should you include? How should the recommendation letter be structured? Are there any pitfalls you should avoid?
Writing a solid recommendation letter is a benefit for the job seeker, of course, but it can help you, as well. You get to deepen a professional relationship, which is helpful in any career.
Here are six things to keep in mind if you’ve been asked to write one, along with a letter of recommendation template for you to customize.
1. Check the rules
Different organizations have different policies regarding writing recommendation letters for former employees. So, touch base with your human resources or legal department to make sure you’re not breaking any rules by endorsing a person in writing.
If your company doesn’t allow a work-related reference letter, ask whether you could provide a written character reference — a recommendation on a personal level.
2. Evaluate the request
Can you honestly recommend this person and endorse their skills to another employer in good faith? If the answer is yes, great. Proceed.
But if you have misgivings about them, writing a letter isn’t a smart idea, and you should decline. Recommending an underperformer can damage your professional reputation, as endorsing a subpar employee to another manager can reflect poorly on your judgment.
If the employee wasn’t a superstar but still had several positive attributes, consider going ahead with the recommendation. In this case, focus on the particular skills or qualities that you can speak favorably of, and keep the compliments realistic and truthful.
Examples of qualities to spotlight:
- Professional: thoroughness and quality of work, capacity for creativity and innovation, productivity and efficiency, never stops learning
- Personal: adaptability, ability to take constructive criticism, rapport with colleagues, determination, work ethic, builds consensus, good sense of humor
3. Research the position
If you can honestly endorse the former employee and have clearance to do so, find out what kind of job they’re applying for. This way you can customize your letter for maximum effectiveness. The former worker should have given you the prospective employer’s name and the job posting. If not, ask them to send you the details. Read up on the company, the field it’s in and the job itself.
Then use your research to inform what you should write. Are they moving into a different industry? If so, you could highlight some of the key skills that would transfer to the new position. If the role is a step up, you could vouch for their leadership skills. Highlight only the abilities and experiences that are relevant to the job in question.
4. Mention specifics
A great recommendation letter is not just an all-encompassing endorsement of the candidate. You can write briefly about what a standout employee they were, but follow up with supporting evidence. Mention specific anecdotes and on-the-job examples that illustrate their technical abilities and soft skills. Hard numbers, if you have them, are good.
Here are some recommendation letter examples:
- She increased sales by 150 percent during her three-year tenure.
- He was promoted twice within 12 months due to outstanding customer service.
- She received five nominations from her peers for exemplifying the values of excellence.
- His proposed workflow shaved 10 minutes from the production line and saved the company almost $1 million a year.
5. Avoid going overboard
There’s a fine balance between complimenting and gushing. The person’s skills and accomplishments should really sell themselves, with your letter of recommendation acting to solidify and confirm them.
Using overly emotional or exaggerated language can come across as unprofessional and puts the reader off. Overstating a person’s qualities and abilities also runs the risk of overpromising: If the worker doesn’t live up to your lofty appraisal, the new employer may feel duped — and blame you.
Here are some examples of what to do and not do:
- Do: He was an impressive and valued staff member who completed his work with diligence, accuracy and speed.
- Don’t: She was the perfect employee! I loved managing her! You’ve never seen anyone enter data that fast, and she never, ever makes mistakes!
6. Proofread before sending
Never let spelling or grammatical mistakes mar your recommendation letter. In addition to making you look bad, a typo-ridden document weakens your endorsement. It shows that you put little time and care into the process. So pay attention to detail, and reread your letter several times before sending it off. In fact, it’s a good idea to write the letter, put it away for a few hours or overnight, then look at it again with fresh eyes.
A letter of recommendation template
Every endorsement you write will be unique to the person, the position they’re applying for and their potential new employer. But it can be helpful to have a general idea of what to include in such a document. Here’s a recommendation letter template you can customize:
Re: Recommendation for [Name]
Dear [Manager’s name],
I am pleased to provide a recommendation letter for [Name], who is applying for the role of [position] at [Name of organization].
[Name] was employed in the role of [former job title] at [Name of your organization] for a period of [length of tenure], under my direct supervision as [your job title].
During her time at our company, [Name] demonstrated excellent people skills, leadership abilities, creative thinking and attention to detail. Her exceptional ideas and work ethic resulted in helping us secure seven new clients and a 125 percent increase in sales.
On customer surveys, she consistently received 95 percent or higher positive feedback. Some of the comments include, “She is an absolute pleasure to work with” and “I’m very impressed by her extensive product knowledge.”
[Name] was a joy to supervise. She was a team player who worked well with everyone, from summer interns to our senior executives. In addition to her stellar verbal and written communication skills, she is an active listener who accepts feedback well.
I believe [Name] would be an asset to any organization, and I can recommend her to your company without hesitation.
[Your job title]
[Your company's name]
[Your contact information]
With this letter of recommendation template, simply fill in the blanks, personalize it with examples of the person’s strengths, proofread it and hit send. Then sit back and enjoy the feeling of helping a respected colleague take the next step in their career.