How to write a letter of reference

If you’ve ever been asked to write a letter of reference your first thought should be, “Can I really recommend this person with a clear conscience?”
Staking your reputation for someone is no small matter. What if the person doesn’t do a good job? And if you’re only an acquaintance, do you really know what this person does and how hard they work?
Here are two questions from readers:
Dear Joan:
I was looking for advice and feedback from you. What is your recommendation on how to handle employment references when the applicant has worked in an administrative capacity for a spouse and cannot produce other references?
Dear Joan:
I am a police officer and I have been asked to write a letter of reference by one of my district citizens, for she has been asked for one by her job tutor. Can you help me in writing a suitable one please?
The first question is, “Am I a work reference or a character reference?” If you have been a co-worker or, better yet, the person’s manager, you are in a good position to be a reference. You can either write a letter of recommendation, or allow your name to be added to the candidate’s list of references.
If you are a relative or an acquaintance, you can’t be much more than a character reference. In the case of the police officer, no doubt the job candidate wants an endorsement from a reliable source.

The police officer can write a short letter describing the nature of their relationship and his or her endorsement of their character. For instance, “John Smith has been in my district since I began working in the area four years ago. He has been an active block
captain, communicating with neighbors about safety. In addition, he is well regarded in his community for his volunteer efforts with seniors. He has also been actively involved in school fundraisers. Last year he successfully led a campaign to buy and install new playground equipment. I can personally vouch for his integrity and character.”
In the case of the person who has only a spouse for a reference, you’d be wise to ask for names of customers, suppliers, and peers, in addition to speaking to the spouse. You can find out more unbiased information from a supplier than someone who is too close to be honest.
In general, a letter of reference is less useful to an employer than a list of references he or she can call. Employers know that the candidate is going to choose advocates who won’t say anything negative—especially since the letter is handed to the candidate!
If you are asked to write a letter, you can always request to be added to the reference list instead.  That way you can ask the potential employer about the job duties and you will be in a position to give lots of examples that relate to the specific position.
If it’s a letter the candidate wants, then try to put yourself in the shoes of the potential employer. The basics of the letter should include:
  • Who you are and what working relationship you had with the individual, and for how long.
  • List a few of the relevant job responsibilities of the individual and give specific examples of his or her results in each area.
  • If the person was a good team player, had a great work ethic and only missed three days in four years, or was well-respected by customers, say so. How the person performed is as important as what he or she did.
  • Finally, make a personal statement about how strongly you would recommend this person.
  • Offer to be contacted in person if the employer wants more details.
But what if you can’t really recommend this person with a clear conscience? You can always beg off by saying, “I think so and so would be a better reference for you.” Or, “I never really worked with you that closely, so I don’t have enough information.” Or, “Sorry, I don’t like giving recommendations for anyone.”

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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