A good reference stands the test of time

Q: One from slightly left-of-field here – I have been asked to write a reference for someone who worked with me almost 20 years ago. I remember her very well – she was an excellent employee – but it was a different time. IWeonly had one PC in the office and this woman didn’t even use it. I know she has developed her IT skills in the meantime, but I can’t vouch for those. She’s going for a job as a Personal Assistant, which is similar to the role she did for us back then. With all the changes that have taken place in technology and work practices in the intervening 20 years, is it feasible for me to even write a reference for her? (MK, email)

A: The short answer is yes.

First off, your former colleague obviously values your opinion and validation, and you clearly have respect for her abilities too, so it would be remiss of you not to do whatever you can, within reason, to help her get the job she is now seeking.

Secondly, in your reference letter, you need only concern yourself with what you know to be good about her. From your introductory paragraph, it will be apparent that it is some time since she worked for you, so the reader will make allowances for changes in work practices and technology.

Thirdly, attitude matters a great deal. I have touched on this here before: attitude will often succeed where talent fails. In the world of sport, the teen prodigy regularly blows their talent, while the determined player of lesser obvious promise sticks with it and makes it all the way to the top.

It is clear from your email that you can vouch for her attitude, albeit 20 years ago. You are not being asked to adjudicate on the attitude she exhibited since leaving your company, because you are not qualified or positioned to do so: but you can make a direct, unambiguous statement along the lines of “she displayed a real appetite for hard work, was fastidious about turning out work of a high standard, and was a popular, respected and valued member of our team.”

Chances are if she had a good attitude in 1992, she still has a good attitude in 2012.

Where appropriate, list specific attributes or skills she displayed: good with people, excellent diary management skills, solid judgement, capacity to work on her own initiative, and the like. Include other concrete details such as years of employment, exact role, specific projects in which she was involved, particular successes she recorded.

Make it clear if you are willing to entertain a phone call or further correspondence, and wish the reader and the candidate well in the future.

Don’t under-estimate the power of your testimony. So, while you should refrain from engaging in scarcely credible hagiography, do make a good effort to relay the suitability of the candidate for the role.


Sli Nua Careers top tip

When writing your CV, you are perfectly entitled to put in sections called Relevant Work Experience and/or Relevant Education. This is a way of bringing attention to those relevant parts of your life story, rather than just slavishly listing off all work experience and/or education without any emphasis on what truly matters to the employer. It’s your CV: craft it to be the best ‘personal brochure’ it can be.

For Sli Nua Careers’ Free Job Searching eBook, including a checklist to ascertain if your CV is up to scratch, email getthatjob@slinuacareers.com with Free Job Searching eBook in the subject line. Contact Sli Nua Careers for CVs, Interview Preparation and Mock Interviews – tel. 094 95 42965 / 091 528 883.