References & Reputations

The Hunt Is ON! References Required!

Reputations Are At Stake ~ Including Yours!

Stick figure measuring Risk of giving referencesIn this pandemic and gig economy, references play a critical role. It’s a two-way street that has some potholes. Be on the lookout! See examples below.

Once upon a time, a person needed letters of reference only for admission to a school, a club, or for an advertised position. Now, it is equally likely that you will need testimonials to substantiate your viability as a work-from-home, newly-minted entrepreneur or free-lancer.

black and gold design giving 5 stars for service as a testimonialWhether willing or reluctant, you are vying for jobs you might not even know exist “out there.”

It is likely they’re in the realms of employers you’ve never heard of, much less targeted with a resume.

That is because new ways of doing business are evolving faster than you can say, “Hire me. I’m best suited for your company.”

Online Networking for Organizations and Job Seekers

Join or Build Your Own – or Both


2 figures sit atop B2B shaking hands in agreement to provide references for each otherMore frequently than in the past, you might have to ask for referrals, and you may be asked to write them to help other people. A common example, in which both conditions apply, is Alignable, a small business directory and networking platform. There, connections are made solely online. (Martin Brossman has written a description about it and gives advices about whether you should join.)

Alignable is only one of several such venues. LinkedIn and Facebook also provide vehicles for obtaining endorsements, as do other lesser-knowns.

Build Your Own

In fact, a whole industry has sprouted, giving options for business referral platforms from which you can choose to build your own network! The Capterra link lists some examples.

  • Everflow
  • Extole
  • Intuitive
  • Referral Rock
  • Tapfiliate
  • SaaSquatch
  • WorkLLama

and more. Go there to see additional listings, descriptions, and comparisons.

There Are Reference Protocols

For this blog, let’s talk about your writing endorsements (references, referrals, testimonials) on behalf of others who are seeking a variety of opportunities.

Note: I can help you with this as part of the writing and editing services I offer – face winking - writing your own references for others  Obviously, you can do it yourself, too, but please contact me at for a free initial consultation! Chirp! Chirp!

If you don’t want to, just keep reading for tips on Doing It Yourself!

It Can Be Quite Awkward

red heart shapeI’ve been asked to create references for people about whom I could gush like Niagra Falls.

purple thought balloon with OMG! in the center!

I’ve also been asked to write them for people who astounded me by asking for the favor, because

1) they KNEW that I knew their job performance was unacceptable, or

2) they were people with whom I had neither worked nor had business transactions.

smiley face crying over bad referenceYet, they were hurt – as in deeply wounded – when I chose not to give a glowing endorsement!

Don’t Poke Holes In Your Reputation

1 star rating - bad review

When you give someone a reference, you are putting your own reputation on the line. If that person is irresponsible, performs poorly, or is dishonest, the recipient of your endorsement will think poorly of you as well. The person who had the misfortune of hiring someone, based on your recommendation, may even tell others that you referred a “bad person” and that your judgment and integrity are questionable (or horrible).

ripple effects in radio waves

It’s going to have ripple effects!

You’re Supposed to Just Say, “No”


You are wiser to say no to writing a recommendation than to write a negative reference for a person. 

One reason for this is because people actually can sue you (and often are successful) if they have been turned down for a position because of a negative response you gave. That is true even when your evaluation is backed up by documented evidence of the person’s poor work record.

gavel and dollar signs - court decision re bad referencesRegardless of whether the plaintiff wins, a lawsuit will cost you time, money, and considerable angst.

"smelling Like A Rose" business etiquette

Another reason for “just saying no”  simply is that you need to be honest with the requestor and yourself about the fact that you cannot, in good conscience, give him or her a good recommendation. “It ain’t nuthin'” to be true to yourself. Go for it! Be an authentic person!

What If You’re Being Pressured?

Do You Really Want Me To? Pros and Cons

I’ve done this for in-house references when a couple of my employees sought a promotion in a different department. Some stood in front of me and, basically, demanded I support their candidacy, despite their performance failures, e.g., chronic tardiness, lack of providing good customer service, or insufficient technological capabilities. Perhaps, they did other things satisfactorily or even well. 

So, occasionally, when an employee with a spotty performance record has asked me to give him/her an endorsement, here’s what happened.

It falls into the category of “Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear to Tread.”

green and red thumbs up; thumbs down

I said I would comply, but that – if I do –  I will mention both the positive and negative traits or experiences I’ve observed. These will be the same things we have previously discussed during performance evaluations. If they want me to give input, knowing I will do that, they may use my name as a reference.

It has surprised me that some of them took me up on it! For you, I do not recommend doing this because of the potential litigation issue.
However, there is a very clean feeling that comes from being honest with both my employee and the prospective new hiring authority.
Furthermore, the new hiring authority was relieved and grateful for the honest evaluation, so he or she could make a judgment based on facts, rather than hopes.
Again, my reputation was on the line, as well as the candidate’s. It was worth taking the chance.
However, You Must Know Your Company’s Policies.

warning sign

Many organizations now disallow offering any information other than dates of employment and whether it would rehire. That policy norm was created because of the potential litigation issue.

Hand writing on paper, "Know the Rules"

But, What if You Really Want To….?

Good news! I have several other tricks up my sleeve.

Keep reading to see examples!

Whatcha’ Gonna Do?

The “Rule of Thumb” Is:

Depiction of Rule of Thumb

If you do not know the applicants well or do not think you can speak highly of their knowledge, skills, or abilities, you are well-advised to reject the request. In fact, that kind of rejection is an art and skill in itself, and The Balance Careers offers some great advice about how to turn down the request for a recommendation.

Now, Let’s Break the Rule


Note: when I do NOT want to provide a work reference because of my unfamiliarity with people’s work ethic, abilities, etc., but I DO want to help, I might respond that I don’t know enough about their work experience, but I’d be happy to write a character reference for them.

Character References

reviewer giving 5 stars to Dr. Douglas

When you write a character reference, you can address ethics, people skills, punctuality, facility with language, research skills, racial and cultural inclusiveness, excellence at teamwork, and other characteristics which you have observed that are pertinent to one’s likely performance in the business world – whether as an employee or independent contractor.

This works especially well when you know they have succeeded in volunteer capacities or on boards of directors. Emphasize their “transferrable skills,” such as technology experience or expertise, people skills, punctuality and attendance, project management, etc.

sad smiley face - character references don't count

However, be aware that some hiring authorities pay zero attention to character or “personal’ references and will consider only work-specific content. They assume you just conned a friend or relative into talking nice about you, and they don’t want to hear it.

(True confession: mostly, I was among those who didn’t want to hear it. I wanted only work references. Yet, I’ll still write character references when I want to. Paradox Lives.)

What Do You Need When You Say “Yes” to Writing a Reference?

Incidentally, your reputation can be affected by whether you know how to write a “proper” reference. If the reference is unprofessionally done, it can harm both you and the applicant. However, the most important consideration is how to truly help the person you agreed to endorse, once you have committed to take the time and effort involved.

To Create the Best Reference for a Job-Seeker, Ask for:
  1. the person’s resume
  2. plus a copy of the advertisement for the opportunity being sought
  3. and the mission statement of that organization
  4. along with any instructions from the hiring authority.
Yes, you should do this every time! Why? ….
Key Words
Just as a job applicant needs to use “key words” in both the cover letter and the CV, you can help most if some of those key words are in the reference you provide.
This is true regardless of whether the applicant is applying for employment, is submitting a bid proposal, is applying for grants, or is looking for entrepreneurial affiliates, funding, etc.

If you’re writing a reference to help someone get into a school, ask for information about the school and also about the specific program of study that the potential student wants to pursue. Include those names in your content. Even better, mention something that falls in line with the organizations mission statement, just as you would if the person were seeking employment.

Letter Length, Style, and Format(s)

Formatting a Reference

word cloud - rules, regulations, policies, references

Typically, a company, grantor, procurement agent, or school provides specific guidelines for submitting applications, such as deadlines, addressees, and whether a certain layout is required.

The accepted length is one page that includes three or four paragraphs. (Fewer paragraphs leave the impression you either do not know or you have reservations about the person and you might not have wanted to write a recommendation.)

Specific instructions might include font style and size.
  • If those are not specified, the convention is to use Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri in a font size between 10 and 12 points.
  • When you started at 12 and the document is expanding beyond one page, change the font size to 11 or 10 to reduce the text to one, single-spaced page.

Note: if necessary to keep the document at one page, you also could make the margins narrower, but that is dangerous and to be avoided. You never know if the computer (that probably is reading your submission) can accept non-standard formatting.

Who Is Reading What You Write?

yellow circles with the word "who" re who will read the references

  • Don’t use a smaller font than 10 pt. Recruiters and HR professionals are people, too!
    • They may have to look at hundreds of applications for one teeny-tiny job.
    • Be kind to them and their eyes if you want them to see your application.
  • Again, always remember, it could be a recruiter or a Human Resources person who first reviews the applicant’s material.
    • Thus, attempt to create a balance between the language that this person would understand easily and the language that the hiring authority relates to – particularly if your candidate is applying for highly technical work that uses a lot of jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations.
    • The reference should reach both audiences while incorporating those key words from the advertisement, if there is one.

Snail Mail Versus eMail Formatting Differences

Before We Get Into the Nitty Gritty Details, Let’s Start with the Last Thing First – Mailing the Letter


If, instead of giving your written endorsement to an applicant to include in the resume package, you are using the USPS to send your letter, you can call attention to the correct recipient by putting the information on the outside envelope.

smiley face laughing and pointing at the humorous statement.The convention is to do that in one of two places per the barely visible arrows in the illustration below.

  1. on the lower left corner, or
  2. between the company name and the street address.
  3. It would say: “Attention: HR Department” or “Attention, Mr. or Ms. So-and-So”

mailing a reference letter

Form or Business Letter?

An applicant may provide a form for you to use in writing a reference. If not, then use standard business letter format. This starts at the top of the page and includes your contact information and the date centered, as follows.

Note: include your email address and phone number in the last paragraph before your signature at the end of the reference, when you invite the recipient to contact you for further information. Customs are changing with the advent of the Internet, however, so some addressees will not mind seeing them at the top.

I’ll provide a sample letter below. Instructionally, here is the standard way of doing it.

Snail Mail

by Manish Dhawan

  1. Your Name – and Title(s), if applicable
  2. Company Name, if applicable
  3. Street Address
  4. City, State, and Zip Code
    • (If there is room, leave a line space next)
    • and then add
  5. The Date on which you are issuing the reference.

Leave up to eleven blank lines and then, on the 12th, Left Justify the “Inside Address” of the intended recipient in the same order as above. Each line should show up on the left margin. (If your letter is longer than one page, you may use fewer blank lines between the date and the inside address. Try to leave at least four, if possible.)

  1. Recipient’s Name
  2. Company Name, if applicable
  3. Street Address
  4. City, State, and Zip Code


    • Recipient’s Name
    • Company Name, if applicable
    • Street Address
    • City, State, and Zip Cod

Then, double space and add:

Attention: Mr. or Ms. So and So or XYZ Department

Then, double space before the Salutation

The “Salutation” is the greeting to the recipient…the “Dear Mr. or Ms., or HR Director, or whomever.”

If you do not know the employer’s name, simply write, “Dear Hiring Manager,” “Dear Procurement Manager,” “Dear Admissions Committee” or whatever seems to be the appropriate title.

Writing a General Recommendation to Last Over Time Is Different

If you are writing an all-encompassing letter that can be used for multiple purposes over time, you could write to “Whom It May Concern.” It could be constructed in memorandum format, like this:

DATE:            The date issued to the candidate

MEMO TO:     Whom It May Concern

FROM:           Nancy Wyatt, (Title/ Company)

SUBJECT:     Reference for Mr. or Mrs. Wonderful

The Format for Emailing a Reference Differs Also

purple email Us sign for Presenter Guidebook

Let’s go back to The Balance Careers for more advice. They say the following.

…, if you are emailing this letter, you do not need to include any contact information or the date at the top of the letter. Instead, list your contact information after your email signature.

A reference email letter should also have a clear, concise subject line that lists the candidate’s name, the job they are applying for (if applicable), and the purpose of the letter. For example, a subject line might read: “Recommendation for Firstname Lastname – Human Resources Assistant Job.”

References or Testimonials?

5 gold stars in a row

If there is no specific potential hiring authority, the budding (or seasoned) entrepreneur or freelancer may need testimonials instead of a traditional letter of reference.

Products and Services Vs. the Individual


Testimonials are GREAT because:

  • Testimonials can be about products and services, as well as about the person who provides them.
  • The originator and the recipient of testimonials can post them on websites, in social media platforms, and in printed materials for the public.
  • I wrote several unsolicited testimonials for colleagues with a consequence that they reciprocated. It was wonderful…the more so, because I didn’t have to ask! (I hate asking.)

What to Include in a Reference Letter, Technically Speaking

Black board with chalk writing "Follow the Rules!"

Opening Paragraph

You will include the following information in your opening paragraph. Cover

  • Your relationship to the person you are recommending (friend, former employer, co-worker, etc.) and how long you have known him or her.
    • If you don’t know the person well, but you feel compelled to be an advocate, you could substitute language stating that your own (customers, family, network) has used this individual’s products and services, and they always give a Five Star rating – or something like that.
    • EXAMPLE. For a particular caterer, who has been struggling during the pandemic, I’ve confessed that I’ve never eaten her preparations, but I belong to networking groups for which she is the first and only choice for their major events and that her reputation in the community is stellar.
    • EXAMPLE. For a specific hypnotist, I have admitted that he has never hypnotized me, but I know three people in our community who lost considerable weight or stopped smoking with his help. They attribute their success to his skills and sing his praises at every opportunity.
    • Make sure that what you say is verifiably true, as the applicant could be challenged to provide recommendations from them.
  • Who you are in terms of why you are qualified to evaluate the applicant for the position. If you are an expert in the field of endeavor the applicant is pursuing, it’s okay to briefly mention that. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek example to make the point.

“As the founder and CEO of an $8M tech company, who, nevertheless, cannot spell, I highly recommend Ms. Walks-On-Water for the position of Lead Technical Writer at Acme Software Company. She has handled my company’s public relations and marketing materials, legal correspondence and documentation, technical training manuals, and human resource policies and procedures handbooks.”

Middle Paragraphs

The middle paragraphs of reference letters contain information on the applicants, including why they are qualified, and what they can contribute. The more specific, the better, so share pertinent examples. Try to use some key words to describe experience, qualities, and skills that relate to the specific job, school, or opportunity. Remember, that’s why you asked for the descriptions.

a skeleton keyKey words are key.

Closing Paragraph

This is where you will offer to provide more information and answer questions. Include your contact information (phone and email). Include a summary sentence stating that you recommend this person “wholeheartedly” or “without reservation.”


End the letter with your handwritten signature above your typed name.

Nancy Wyatt (flowing signature)

Nancy Wyatt (printed name)

For an email reference, simply include your typed name, followed by your contact information.

Proofread the Reference, PLEASE

Proofread your letter before sending it. You can have someone else edit the letter, but conceal the candidate’s name to preserve their privacy.

Need Help With References? You Can See Testimonials About Me Here Before You Contact Me.

I’d be happy to review, edit, or write references that you need to help other people. We’ll have a free initial chat about your needs, timetables, and prices. Here are some of my own references for you to see!  Contact me at: and put “Inquiry re References” in the subject line.

Reference Letter Sample

I had planned to include a sample recommendation here. However, Balance Careers has multiple samples for multiple kinds of references. Click Here to find the ones you want.

If you want learn more about job hunting, we can arrange a class (for groups or individuals). Here is a link to describe some of what is covered.

Meanwhile, thanks for sticking with me through this LONG post! Happy Hunting and Best Wishes!

Do It The Write Way! Let My Fingers Do Your Talking!

#references #testimonials #referrals #reviews

About Nancy Ayanna Wyatt

In addition to being a writer/editor, creator of infographics, and a highly engaging presenter and trainer, I am an ethical, energetic, and multi-faceted manager, demonstrably successful in directing human and financial resource allocation, contract administration, policies and procedures development, and supervisory functions. I have managed diverse departments, ranging from business offices to police, to name only two, while working for multi-national corporations, non-profits, higher education, state government, and small businesses. I have created extensive procedures, manuals, and training programs. I use the Internet, MS Office Suite, and presenter software. I have created 3 Word Press websites "from scratch." I sell photos on merchandise at My earned reputation is for fair play and for keeping people informed at all levels. I am praised often for my communication skills, which include listening, public speaking, writing and editing, training, and interpersonal relationships with people of all ages, cultures and hierarchical levels. An example of a presentation is "How To Start A Business," for which I provide extensive notes in English and Spanish. Seminars on many topics may be booked through my website or by calling me. You also may hire me to create/and or present new teaching or training projects!

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