A workplace is defined as much by social interactions as by the work that gets done. Now, not all of those interactions are pleasant (We’ve all endured that grumbling client or that tattletale coworker.), but some can be immensely satisfying. Praise and compliments make us feel good, and they’re actually good for us. A study by researchers at Japan’s National Institute for Physiological Sciences showed that “social rewards” like praise can actually improve certain health benchmarks, most notably motor function. And here’s the interesting thing; those who give compliments benefit just as much as those who receive them.
So if you’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation, you’re in a pretty good place. You’re probably feeling flattered to have been asked, and you get to dole out some social rewards to a valued protégé or colleague. Here’s a double fistful of pointers to help you get started.
That’s right. If you don’t feel flattered or confident in recommending someone for the position, decline the invitation as politely as you can. A half-hearted or insincere recommendation can be worse than none at all, offering little in the way of social reward for anybody. You wouldn’t want to be two-faced, after all.
Use standard business letter format. If your recommendation is going to multiple or undetermined recipients such as a search committee or placement agency, you may use a generic greeting such as, “Dear Sir or Madam,” or, “To whom it may concern.” Otherwise, personalize the letter with the recipient’s name. As always, verify the spelling of even the simplest names; you wouldn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with a Jem Gordan or a Stefani Browne.
Begin with a statement of purpose such as, “I am writing to you to recommend Richard Grayson for a position with your security firm.” Then offer a brief summary of the subject’s qualities and expertise. Make your enthusiasm clear from the start: “Richard’s athleticism and forensic skills are outstanding, particularly considering his age; he is truly a ‘boy wonder,’ so to speak.”
In a few words, define how you know the subject and the nature of your work together: “For the last ten years, Richard has assisted my work as director of a privately funded municipal anti-crime initiative.”
Talk up your subject’s qualifications, using specific examples and strong verbs. Keep your anecdotes brief and to the point. Statistics can help to make your point: “Thanks to Richard’s team spirit and dedication, during his tenure Gotham City has seen a 22% decline in homicides, a 19% drop in bank robberies, and a whopping 82% reduction in giant typewriter-related crimes.”
Use comparisons to emphasize your subject’s achievements: “Junior partners in this line of work typically serve only as mascots or sidekicks, but Richard’s day-to-day involvement with our operation has made him an important local crime-prevention operative in his own right.”
Be unstinting in your praise, but don’t paint a picture that’s too good to be true. Show how the subject can improve: “Richard’s youth and enthusiasm have sometimes led him to take impetuous action, resulting in the occasional kidnapping. His tactical thinking, though, will doubtless improve with experience.”
Coming into the closing of your letter, reaffirm your recommendation: “In short, Richard has proven himself to be far more than half of a dynamic duo; he is his own man, and I feel confident in predicting that you will see great things from him.”
Use a standard business closing such as, “Sincerely,” or, “Best regards,” and personalize a printed letter with a hand-written signature.
Once your recommendation is complete, look it over to evaluate your presentation. Is it appropriately businesslike? Though you may be quite fond of your protégé, a letter of recommendation shouldn’t be a sentimental journey. Strive for a professional tone. And be sure to present yourself as open and accessible; advertise your availability for follow-up questions, even if it means revealing your secret identity.
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