"Johnny is the best."
"Suzy is great."
"Billy is a hard worker."
Whether you are an SPD leader or frontline technician, chances are good you will be needing or writing a letter of recommendation at some point in your career. And as important as these kinds of letters are, it is still difficult to dig through the flood of templates out there to create something that's really your own. Just as I argued in a post on crafting competitive SPD resumes, you'll almost always want to steer away from cookie-cutter internet filler when you can. Few things are more personal than a letter of recommendation -- they not only tell a story about candidate but they also tell at a story about you. So you owe it to the person you're recommending to provide something that truly answers the question, "Why them, instead of someone else?"
Here are five keys for ensuring your SPD letter of recommendation gets the job done:
1) Know the Candidate
In case you didn't know this, I'll come right out and say it here: If you want to write a great letter of recommendation, you really need to know the person you are recommending. If you've met them once in passing or only see their names on various email chains throughout the year, you may not be the best person to comment on their character, abilities, and commitment to excellence. If you don't know them, it will show in your letter (unless you're just great at making stuff up, which I'll address in a moment). So. do both of you a favor and only agree to write letters of recommendation for those who you know personally.
2) Interview the Candidate
Even though you're not hiring them, someone else is (hopefully)! So you need to see and hear what the hiring manager will see and hear as you interview the person for whom you're writing a letter. This will give you the ability to fill in the gaps about the candidate that probably won't come out in their interview. Although some people excel at bragging about themselves (typically not a good trait), many folks find it hard to say great things about themselves, regardless of the circumstances. Your job as a recommender is to highlight the areas of their professional career that other hiring managers would want to know, but may not see on a resume or hear in an interview.
3) Learn about the New Job
Just like writing a great resume, for competitive letters of recommendation, you will want to understand the particular context and responsibilities this new job would hold for the person you are recommending. If the candidate will have no oversight over budgets, it will be a waste of time for you to wax eloquently about their abilities to number crunch. If the new job demands a skill set that is not clearly present in the candidate's work history, you will want to key in on that area to provide concrete examples of how the person actually did have exposure to that particular area of SPD leadership. For instance, if you have a technician applying for a Manager position, you may want to explain how this technician assisted in creating staffing schedules, ordered supplies for the department, and handled difficult conversations with vendors (all things that are not necessarily evident under the title "technician").
4) By all Means, BE HONEST
Out of all of these points, this is the most important. If you put your name on the line for someone else, you need to stick with the facts. It is not fair to the employee or their would-be employer to have rays of sunshine coming out of your letter of recommendation when the forecast is more like partly cloudy. Keep yourself from phrases like "best technician ever" and "no one can compare," etc. Everyone knows we are hiring human beings, so there is no need to create some kind of superman/woman persona in a letter of recommendation. Highlight their true skills and their professional strengths, and let the candidate take it from there.
5) Be Poetically Persuasive
Okay, so I'll admit, this is my favorite point. When someone comes to you with a request to write a letter of recommendation, what they are really asking you to do is sell them with words, to describe them in a way that communicates their value to a would-be employer. In order to do this well, you must put on your marketing hat, polish off your textbook on Shakespeare, and use language that carries a punch. This is not an occasion to write technically (“Sandra knows Neuro instrumentation very well”). Instead, you should write in a manner that conveys information persuasively, almost poetically. Use lists of 3’s (I love lists of 3’s!) – “Sandra is consistently on-time, constantly improving, and a conscientious worker under any circumstance.” Alliteration is also your friend (i.e. consistently, constantly, conscientious). But more importantly, use words that come from the posted job description to describe the candidate’s previous experience and current skills. Nothing hits the heart of a hiring manager like reading their own words written about someone applying for the job.
A few other details to keep in mind:
keep the letter short and readable (1-page, if possible),
include contact information if the reader would like more information,
and make sure to proof-read before you send to the candidate.
Depending on the circumstances, you should plan to spend anywhere from 1-2 hours working on a typical letter of recommendation. Although that’s admittedly a big investment for a busy professional, it’s time well spent. You may be writing a letter for the future manager of a Level-1 Trauma SPD that will ensure your loved one has safe instrumentation for their emergency surgery, or a future SPD vendor who will be advocating for best-practices and best-products in hospitals all over the country. Every moment counts.
Now, dust off that typewriter and get to work, boss! You've got future leaders waiting on you...
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