How to Use Open Letters of Recommendation to Secure a Job

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Most employment application forms have a space for listing people whom the employer can contact to learn more about the applicant. (You already provided this information in your sample employment application form and in your job resume.)

You might think that the importance of this information would make the employer contact all applicants' references before making a decision, but in practice, this rarely happens. Most employers narrow down the list of applicants to only one or two, and then as the last step they contact those persons' references.

Employers who have trouble making contact with the references for one applicant may delay hiring, or may simply pass over the first applicant and instead try to contact the references listed by another applicant. As a result, the job doesn't get filled right away—or it does, but not by the first hapless applicant, whose excellent references were never even discovered. And employers suffer, too—they must go to additional efforts to make a decision.

Further complications may arise: Even when the reference people are contacted, they may be too busy to send in the requested letters of recommendation; or when they do, they may fail to include the type of information the employer wants to know.

For advanced positions such as professional or managerial jobs, applicants are usually asked to have their reference persons send in a letter of recommendation, and no decision is made until these letters are received. Yet even though the letter of recommendation is taken very seriously in this situation, applicants may be passed over because the letter fails to arrive, making their application file incomplete.

In short, the usual method of obtaining letters of recommendation is inconvenient for the employer, unfortunate for the applicant, a nuisance to a reference (who must send out many letters), and a delaying factor in filling jobs quickly.

The Jobs Club approach to open letters of recommendation

The Job-Club solution to these dilemmas involves a little-used method: the open letter of recommendation.

Here, you don't wait for the employer to contact your references. Instead, you contact them, obtain the letter, and give it to the employer directly. This solves all the disadvantages posed by the usual method, and everyone gains.

Employers don't have to write or call the reference persons, so their task is simplified. And they don't have to wait for the letters, so they can fill positions more quickly. You will not be bypassed because your reference person failed to send a letter, or sent it out too late. And you will know the letter's contents, so you will have no fear that the letter is unfavorable. Finally, the reference persons now need to write only a single letter instead of sending out one for every employer who wants to know more about you.

Who should you approach to get open letters of recommendation?

Your references should be written by people whose title or job indicates that their judgment can be trusted. For example socially respected people like Doctors, Public officers, such as mayor, county clerk, sheriff, representatives, school board officials, etc. if you lack or have too little previous employment record. In case of people with previous employment records, letters from employers, reporting authority or trusted colleagues can also work.

Get it officially done

Have your chosen people write their title on the letter and use their company's letterhead stationery. This informs employers of the persons' title and position of responsibility and trust.

If you cannot think of anyone with such a title who would write a letter for you, ask other people, even though they may not have impressive titles—a favorable letter from anyone is much better than no letter at all. In this case, you might ask your landlord, a member of your card club or bowling team, a friend, a distant relative, a manager of a store where you have shopped extensively, and so on.

How to get it done

Because the reference persons often don't know what to say in their letters about you, they may delay or fail to write them. You can help by making their task easier: Give them all the information about you that they might want. For example, say you call up one reference person on the phone and ask him to write a letter. After he agrees, you tell him you'll write him a note about the kind of letter you need. Here is what your note might say:

“Dear Mr. Forsyth:

I'm writing this note, as I told you I would on the phone. Thanks for agreeing to give me a letter of recommendation. Since I'll be giving the letter to different companies, please address it "To Whom It May Concern."

To refresh your memory about some details: You first met me in the American Legion in 1968, about 9 years ago, when I joined while you were president. We worked together on several committees, especially the Social Committee when we planned outings. You have met my wife, Doris, and my three children at our picnics and at parties, and you know my department foreman, Ralph Henshaw, real well.

In the letter you might want to comment on whether I am trustworthy and conscientious, and on how I get along with people, since this information is very important to job interviewers. Also, if you could write your letter on your company stationery, that would make it clear that the letter came from you— especially if you put your telephone number, title, and address on it so that interviewers could contact you to check if they need to.

I really appreciate your writing this letter. It will mean a lot to me. As you can see, I'm trying very hard to get a job, so if you hear of anything, either where you work or at other places, I'd like to know about it. Since you don't know all the things I've done in jobs before we met, I'm also sending you a couple of job resumes I've made up. They will tell you a little bit more about me, and you can also give one to anyone you hear about who might have the kind of job I can fill.

I'm including a stamped, self-addressed envelope so you can return your open letter to me easily as soon as you get it typed up. Thanks again, and give my best to Joan and the kids. See you at the bank.

Yours sincerely

A short check list for a reference letter
  1. Address the letter to: "To whom it may concern"
  2. Use company stationery and your job title
  3. State how long you have known me
  4. Discuss what people say about my work and what you know about it
  5. Comment on:
  6. how well I get along with people
  7. my conscientiousness
  8. my honesty
  9. my trustworthiness
  10. my dependability
  11. Discuss anything that is special about me

In talking to your reference people over the phone, you can cite the information that's in this Reminder List, or you can send a follow-up letter that makes these points, like the one shown here.

In many instances, your reference persons will ask you to write a letter for them and to send it to them for changes, additions, and a signature. If so, use the Reminder List to compose a letter. Do not hesitate to say favorable things about yourself—if the reference persons feel you are being unrealistically self-congratulatory, they will simply change your letter.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

About LawCrossing
LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

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