Reference letters, often tucked neatly within application documents, can sometimes be overlooked in the hustle of the hiring process. 

Yet, with 69% of employers having changed their mind about a candidate after speaking with a reference, these letters are clearly pivotal. 

They offer a unique lens, providing insights into a candidate’s professional demeanor, skills, and achievements from a third-party perspective. 

So, how can you meticulously decipher these letters to uncover not just the overt but the covert, ensuring your hiring decisions are robust and well-rounded? 

Let’s explore!

What is a reference letter?

Man and woman reading a reference letter during a job interview in an office.

A reference letter is essentially a professional endorsement. 

It’s written by someone who knows the candidate well and can vouch for their skills and character. 

The goal? 

To help them stand out in job applications. 

Typically, these letters come from colleagues or team leaders who have closely worked with the individual.

4 main types of reference letters used while hiring

  1. Character reference letters: These delve into an individual’s personal attributes, providing a window into their integrity and moral compass.
  2. Academic reference letters: These validate a candidate’s academic prowess and suitability for specific programs or scholarships.
  3. Employee reference letters: A crucial tool for recruiters, these letters provide a snapshot of a candidate’s skills and work history, potentially making them a standout in a pile of resumes.
  4. Personal reference letters: Offering a peek into a candidate’s character and values, these letters can be instrumental in assessing cultural fit within your team.

Why are reference letters so important for recruiting?

Apart from confirming a candidate’s commitment and background, here’s why reference letters matter:

  • Confirms culture fit: Reference letters display how well the applicant might fit into the recruiting organization if hired. 

Referees emphasize the applicant’s alignment with company culture, teamwork, and adaptability. This gives employers a peek into their potential to contribute positively to the team.

  • Validates professional relationships: Reference letters are evidence of the applicant’s strong professional relationships. 

These endorsements show the applicant’s standing among peers and colleagues, enhancing their credibility.

  • Showcases essential soft skills: Reference letters highlight the applicant’s essential soft skills beyond technical qualifications. 

Referees may emphasize traits such as communication, leadership, adaptability, and problem-solving abilities, which are critical in the workplace. 

3 ways how a reference letter can benefit recruiters throughout different stages of hiring 

Reading a reference letter during the interview process

1. Initial screening

A reference letter at this point acts as a seal of approval for the candidate’s stated technical skills and experiences, giving their application a boost of credibility as it moves to the next phases. 

In a way, reference letters can speed up your candidate screening process so you have less cross checking to do. 

2. In-depth candidate assessment

During this phase, a reference letter can provide insights into a candidate’s innovative thinking, problem-solving abilities, and how they have applied their skills in real-world scenarios. 

It’s about understanding not just what they can do, but how they do it, and how it translates into tangible outcomes. 

With a reference letter, you’ll have a much better idea whether the candidate is suitable for the role and the type of responsibilities they’ll encounter.

3. Final decision making

When you’re on the fence about a candidate, a reference letter can tip the scales. 

It can affirm the observations made during the interview process and provide that final nudge towards making a confident hiring decision.

6 identifiers to look out for in an ideal reference letter

So, what makes a reference letter truly valuable for recruiters? Let’s unwrap some key elements you should keep an eye out for:

  1. Authenticity: A genuine reference letter will not shy away from providing specific examples to back up the praises sung. Look for instances, projects, and tangible outcomes that are discussed in relation to the candidate’s skills and attributes.
  2. Balanced perspective: While a reference letter will predominantly highlight the positives, a well-rounded letter will also subtly touch upon areas of improvement, providing a balanced view of the candidate.
  3. Alignment with job requirements: A reference letter that speaks to the specific skills and attributes required for the job in question is a gem. 

It provides a direct correlation between what the candidate brings to the table and what’s needed for success in the role.

  1. Look beyond the fluff: While accolades and praises are great, dig deeper to find how these are backed by examples and outcomes. 

A claim of “excellent leadership” should be supported by instances where this leadership was demonstrated and what it achieved.

  1. Consistency is key: Ensure that the skills and achievements highlighted in the reference letter are consistent with what’s presented in the resume and during the interviews.
  2. Contact the referee: If possible, a quick chat with the person who wrote the reference can provide deeper insights and validate the authenticity of the letter.

When a standard reference letter is not available, what’s next? 

Let’s say a standard reference letter is not available; here’s where you can look for instead:

  • LinkedIn recommendations: Dive into their LinkedIn. You know, those recommendations they have from colleagues? They might be a bit more casual, but can offer valuable insights.
  • Social media shoutouts: Scan their social media. Did someone give them a shoutout for their stellar work on a project? Those endorsements, even if they’re just a tweet or a post, can tell you a lot.
  • Emails from the prospective hire: Ask your candidate, “Got any emails where your boss or teammates praised your work?” It might sound unconventional, but these can be as revealing as any formal reference.

Make sure whatever method you choose paints an accurate and compelling picture of the candidate’s abilities.