Letters of Reference Are Always Challenging

Many of us in the voluntary sector have experience working with and supervising students and professionals, and we often receive requests to write letters of reference for them when they complete their degrees or are seeking a new position. Writing these letters can be a challenge both for the person requesting it and for the one writing it. At the same time there is a third party to the letter of reference, and that is the person receiving the letter.

A great deal of thought has to be given both to the process of writing the letter and its content. Before I sit down and write a letter of reference, I always ask the person requesting it what position he or she is applying for and who is the person receiving the letter. Often, the request is for an open letter of reference that would be addressed to “To Whom It May Concern.” The letter would be used at some future date when applying for a job. I do not think this is an appropriate approach for the person requesting the letter or for the person receiving the letter and I refuse to write these kinds of letters.

Letters of reference are not written in a vacuum, and a general letter only reflects upon the person in a very vague way, relying on platitudes that could apply in any situation or to any person. At the same time such a letter does not provide relevant information to the agency or organization that is hiring someone. For a letter of reference to really serve its purpose it should be written in response to a specific request for a specific open position.

Whenever I hired people for positions at the organizations where I was responsible for building a staff, there was a job description that identified the knowledge and skills I was looking for to fill the position. It did not matter whether it was an administrative or a direct service position. Therefore, I wanted letters of reference that would relate to the expertise that was important to the organization and to me.

A general letter about the person might not provide the necessary information about his or her background, and so I would request a personal letter written by a previous employer or, for a new graduate, by a teacher. In fact, I recommended that the job seeker share the job description with the person providing the reference so the letter – or verbal references given over the telephone – could be more specific to the position. Thus the person requesting a reference should be cognizant of the skills required by the position and should only request a letter of reference when applying for a specific position with an organization.

Throughout my career I have always told students, employees, and colleagues that I would be happy to write letters of reference for them and that they should feel free to provide my name to a prospective employer. It did not matter to me how many times during their careers they asked me to provide a reference. However, it was very important for them to let me know the details of the specific position, as well as its accompanying responsibilities, that they were applying for. The more informed I was, the better prepared I would be to provide the relevant information about their suitability to fulfill the requirements of the job. At the same time I would strive to be honest with the candidates about what I could and could not say in the context of a letter of reference. If I did have doubts about their strengths or abilities, I would let them know so they would understood the limitations I had in providing support for the position being sought.

Given the unique professional needs of the Jewish community in its family service agencies, community centers, home for the aged, schools, and any number of other communal agencies, the applicant’s Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish community are relevant. Providing information on these aspects of the applicant is a sensitive area, so the person writing the letter needs to discuss it with the candidate. If the prospective employer asks about the candidate’s Jewish identity and involvement in the Jewish community, the provider of the reference has to be able to respond appropriately, and there should be no surprises for the candidate, the letter writer, or the prospective employer if that information is provided.

Most employers will ask a reference what are the candidate’s weaknesses or what might the candidate find most challenging in fulfilling the job responsibilities. This question should also be discussed between the candidate and the reference so there is no blindsiding and the candidate understands exactly what will be said about his or her abilities.

Thus, references provide a challenge to the three parties that are involved in requesting, writing, and reading the letters. When there is clarity among the parties, letters of references can be a very important and effective tool to engaging new employees in the Jewish community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.