So you are looking to hire a potential new staff member from a list of candidates. You have been through a couple of interview rounds and are down to the last few candidates which you need to choose from. You are now at the point where you are considering checking out the references and recommendations made by previous employers.
As you go through the list of references you come across one candidate's references and see something different to the rest; a letter of recommendation rather than a name and a number. Whilst this is a less common procedure in Australia than receiving a proposed references contact details, it is not unheard of.
But what should you look for in this letter.
There are a few key things to look for in a well written Letter of Recommendation:
Is the letter written by someone who had senior standing within the nominated company?
Receiving a glowing letter of recommendation from someone is exactly what you want, however, is there a title on the signature indicating the writer's position within the previous company? If not, you may need to look into this. After all it is all too easy to ask a colleague with whom you get on really well with to write a nice letter for you.
Similarly, if the position of the writer is provided, check to ensure that the writer did hold a senior position to the candidate. It is also important to check that the writer was more senior to the candidate and as importantly that there is a direct correlation between the writer of the letter and your potential employee. This indicates that the recommender did work with the subject and is of authority in writing about them.
Does the letter encourage you to contact the writer for further information?
At the risk of sounding cynical, sometimes an employer will write a glowing recommendation letter in an attempt to placate a recently dismissed employee, or to appear to be working together with the employee.
Whilst this is possibly the exception to the rule, because a letter of recommendation is visible to the candidate they will know what is being said about them. A phone conversation on the other hand allows you to check the reference's validity.
If there is no contact detail given for the recommender perhaps ask the candidate why as this may indicate that the writer does not want to be contacted to corroborate the contents of the letter.
Does the letter collaborate the interview responses given by the candidate?
It is very unlikely that a candidate will not have read and memorised the contents and implications of their letter of recommendation. Thus it is unlikely that they will have provided you with answers that contradict the letter directly. However, look for subtle things which may indicate the candidate has exaggerated somewhat. Does the letter say that the candidate worked well under supervision whereas the candidate said their role was autonomous? Does the letter provide details of the candidates 'rapid rise'? If there are subtle discrepancies, it may be worth investigating further.
Is te letter is well written and professional?
Keeping in mind that English may not be everyone's first language, another important factor to consider in the evaluation of a Letter of Recommendation is the structure of the letter and the tone. If the letter sounds familiar and conversational, then there could be a chance that the person writing it was or is more of a friend than direct report. This may mean you need to temper the contents of the letter somewhat to see through to the truth.
It is worth noting that this list is far from definitive, and is only a guide. Using discretion as in all things is advised and using sound judgement. However, if you have other advice on what to look for in a letter of recommendation, please share it here.