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I've heard of the concept of a "letter of recommendation" but I'm unclear as to what they are and how they work. Specific questions:

  • What exactly is a letter of recommendation?
  • What value do these letters have for a hiring manager?
  • Should I make a habit of asking managers to write me one when I resign?
  • Can I write my own letter and have someone else sign it?
  • Do letters from managers or clients have the same value as those written by colleagues or family and friends?
  • Are these letters used differently in the public or private sector or in academia?

Note: when answering, please mention if your advice/experience is specific to a particular region, industry or office culture.

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    This is intended to be a canonical question for general questions regarding recommendation letters. – Lilienthal Nov 5 '15 at 18:56
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    They're mainly used for two things that I have 'actually seen in practice', academia uses them a lot, a professor might write one for a student to introduce him to another academic or group, and these are pretty powerful to have. Secondly in many countries who you know is much, much, much more important than your skillset, letters of recommendation from well connected people are a big asset in the job search and in some cases you can't get certain jobs without one. – Kilisi Nov 5 '15 at 19:29
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What exactly is a letter of recommendation?

A letter endorsing you for the goal to which you are applying. Quite frequently this is for a job opportunity, but it can also be for visas, citizenship applications, appointments to exclusive organizations or controlling boards, or other exclusive opportunities.

When asking for, or writing one, it's important to know why it's being written, because a good recommendation letter is a compelling endorsement to select the given individual for the given opportunity.

What value do these letters have for a hiring manager?

Two things:

  • When the individual and the recommendation writer are unknown to the hiring manager, the letter gives a context about what the individual has done well and what kind of a good hire the individual will be. It also shows that there was someone out there willing to put their good name on referring the candidate.

  • When the writer or something about the individual's career history are known the hiring manager, it counts for even more. Some industries (even global ones) are small and quite well networked. The farther I get in my career, the less surprised I am when I find out that the people hiring me know the people writing my references. This counts for even more, since the hiring manager now knows how the reference thinks and what his or her basis of judgement may be.

Should I make a habit of asking managers to write me one when I resign?

Depends on your industry.

As an American engineering manager, I ask and expect to be asked regularly about my willingness to write reference letters. It's good to line up positive referrals when your daily interactions may be at an end. Resignation is a good time to exchange contact info with those you want to keep in touch with - references are just a part of that.

As an academic in the US, I found out that a friend of mine, instead, expects to collect reference letters for her CV at the time that she leaves a job. The general intention is that she is aiming to other institutions and that because her term of service in academia is fixed, she's looking for letters towards the very obvious next step up the ladder, so references know what kind of letter they need to write and what the acceptance criteria on the next option will be.

The less obvious the career transitions in your industry are- the more likely it is that you want people who are willing to be references instead of the actual letter.

Can I write my own letter and have someone else sign it?

It depends.

In some circumstances (such as applying for visas and citizenship) the asker may provide a written letter subject to the review of the referrer. The times I've seen this, it's because the goal was very specific and certain criteria that may not be known to the reference MUST be part of the letter, or the opportunity is at risk.

In circumstances that are less strict (for example, job applications) referrers expect to be at liberty to write their own letters, they just want to know the criteria they are supposed to be writing for - for most of my job references, I've provided job description, my current resume/CV, and notes taken from my research on the position to the reference writer.

In all cases, referrers expect to be able to edit or tweak the writing. No reference is likely to be willing to sign virtually anything you give them, so if you give a letter, offer it in electronic, editable format and plan time for the reference to review and edit it.

Do letters from managers or clients have the same value as those written by colleagues or family and friends?

Nope.

For the most part, the letters from those who have very little bias and who have had to receive the direct value of your work (managers and clients) hold more weight. Also people of more senior positions, or highly respected skills in the industry hold more weight as experts on personnel.

Family and friends are useful, but may be assumed to be biased.

The degree to which these groups differ has a lot to do with the nature of what you are applying for. Things that are focused on personal character may rate managers, clients, colleagues, friends and family almost the same. Opportunities that require your career skills are going to consider people who have been associated with you and dependant on you in your career more strongly.

Some positions will draw clear lines (1 reference at most from friends & family, at LEAST 1 reference from a former manager, etc) so having a diverse collection of willing references is ideal.

However, it's understood that people the beginning of their career don't have that many bosses who can give a reference... having not had many/any bosses before.

Are these letters used differently in the public or private sector or in academia?

Yes.

And they carry different weight in different companies within a sector, and with different hiring managers within a company.

In all cases, you'll do better if:

  • The reference speaks eloquently to the needs of the position
  • The reference is honestly given and positive
  • The reference is compelling in that the person giving the reference is trusted to be an adequate relationship per the requirements of the position application and more so if the reference giver is known and/or respected.
  • Excellent answer bethlakshmi. This kind of comprehensive answer, speaking from experience and covering all bases is exactly what I hoped for on this question. Thanks for taking the time to write all of this out. – Lilienthal Nov 6 '15 at 22:42
  • As a follow-up: I've been told that in the private sector letters are antiquated and only references are really used. Is that your experience? When you say "willingness to write reference letters" is that a willingness to be a reference or specifically to writing a letter? And can you assume, either as the candidate requesting the letter or as the hiring manager receiving one from a candidate, that anyone who wrote a letter will also be willing to be an actual reference? – Lilienthal Nov 6 '15 at 22:43
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    I work in the private sector. 2 years ago, I had to provide a list of 3 people who would provide references. A "letter" was not necessary. I have, however, written letters of reference, but not for high tech - for artist visas, and for contractors making bids on new jobs. On that basis, I'd say they are not antique, but they are not universal. – bethlakshmi Nov 9 '15 at 19:47
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    Generally, I don't ask people to write a blanket letter on the spot. I ask if they are willing to "be a reference". When the time comes to need an actual letter, I contact the person, state the specific need and timeline, and ask them to help. When I ask (or when I am asked) I am expecting that the person will be willing and able to say something positive. I have politely declined to give a reference for various reasons (some of them legal). Yes, I generally assume that if I am reading or giving a letter of reference, that the contact information in the letter can be used for follow up. – bethlakshmi Nov 9 '15 at 19:49
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What exactly is a letter of recommendation?

A recommendation letter is a formal endorsement of you. They are most common in academia, but sometimes make their way into the private sector. A recommendation letter is generally written with knowledge of the new position being offered.

What value do these letters have for a hiring manager?

Apart from endorsing you, a recommendation letter should high-light your accomplishments, and explain why the recommender believes you will succeed in your new role.

Should I make a habit of asking managers to write me one when I resign?

No - A recommendation letter should always speak to a particular career goal. Asking a manager to write a generic one is a waste of time.

Can I write my own letter and have someone else sign it?

No - this is very unethical. The recommendation letter is suppose to be an honest opinion about you from someone familiar with your work. In many cases you are not allowed to see the recommendation written to ensure the recommender can speak freely.

Do letters from managers or clients have the same value as those written by colleagues or family and friends?

In general, your recommendation letters will always be written by manager or clients. Remember, the recommendation should high-light professional accomplishments and goals, and provide an objective, informed opinion about your suitability for the role. A letter from a loved one will likely not meet any of these criteria, and will certainly not be objective.

Are these letters used differently in the public or private sector or in academia?

Recommendation letters are much more popular in academia, but some companies request them as well. The point of a letter of recommendation is to explain your suitability for a particular role. In academia, this is usually written to get someone a post-doc or into grad school, or for someone getting tenure. Some companies with lots of Ph.D. also use this system. You may also be required to get recommendation letters to be appointed to certain committees or posts within a company.

  • This is a good answer, but I would highlight the fact that outside of academia, recommendation letters are very uncommon. – David K Nov 6 '15 at 19:56
  • Rephrased 1st sentence in the last line to address this. – sevensevens Nov 6 '15 at 21:23
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From an employment perspective:

To Whom It May Concern:

[Employee Full Name] was a great asset to our environment. [Employee First Name] provided invaluable insight, was highly productive and a real team player. I know [s/he] will make a great asset to any team they join.

Regards,
[ex manager name]

Basically, it's a letter signed by someone you've worked for which says nice things about you. The entire purpose of the letter is to prove that at least one person in this world believes you are not a complete scumbag.

Beyond that it really proves nothing.

A letter for academia is worded slightly differently although it ultimately serves the same purpose - to show that at least one peer thinks well enough of you to associate their name with you.

The difference between a letter written by a professional acquaintance and a friend/family member writing one is that the family/friend letters are even more meaningless.

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This answer is mostly for the public and private sector in Germany. Source: I work in the private sector in Germany and a relative is a manager in the public sector in Germany. Plus Wikipedia.

What exactly is a letter of recommendation?

According to Wikipedia, in Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Switzerland employees can legally claim an employment reference, including the right to a correct, unambiguous and benevolent appraisal.

As far as I know, only Germany and Switzerland have the concept of a "qualifying employment reference letter" (Qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis) which must contain a somewhat detailed description of the employee's responsibilities, performance and conduct.

What value do these letters have for a hiring manager?

German and Swiss managers use a code (refers to German Wikipedia) to write these letters. They look/sound like letters but in reality they are report cards. "XY always fullfilled their duties to our utmost satisfaction" means an A, "XY fullfilled their duties to our satisfaction" means a C and "XY made an effort to fullfill their duties" means "but they didn't" so an E.

So, to someone who knows the code, the letter should show what the applicant's previous managers thought of their work.

Also, these letters usually describe in some detail what the employee did at that job, which can be helpful to confirm their experiences.

Should I make a habit of asking managers to write me one when I resign?

Yes, in these countries you should ask for the letter. You should even ask to get a letter when you switch to a sufficiently different role inside the same company.

When applying for jobs in Germany, companies usually expect to see such reference letters from your previous employers (but not from the current one) and even from internships. If you don't provide letters for jobs where you should have gotten one, that raises questionmarks - you will be asked about that during the interview.

If you're new to the German job market (e.g. fresh graduate), it is fine to apply without letters.

Can I write my own letter and have someone else sign it?

On the one hand, the only time I have seen this was an internship in academia. It is possible but unusual.

On the other hand, I've been asked to provide the letter writer with some notes on which of my achievements she should specifically mention in her letter.

Do letters from managers or clients have the same value as those written by colleagues or family and friends?

Only letters from managers count as "qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis" but letters from clients can be just as valuable. I'm unsure about letters from colleagues, but I think they'd raise a red flag if you don't have a letter from your manager for that position.

I would recommend against letters from family and friends - to me that would imply that the letters from your managers are so bad you didn't want to send them. If you are too young to have letters from professionals, because it is your first or second job, then it's fine to apply without letters.

Are these letters used differently in the public or private sector or in academia?

In my limited experience, there is no difference between the public and private sector. I can't really speak for academia, but academia is so international that you should read the other answers for that.

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