My Rules for Providing References


I’ve been fortunate to meet quite a few people over the course of my college, military and federal civilian careers.

This time of the year I usually receive requests to write a reference for someone I’ve worked with, trained or met in some sort of professional environment. I’m always excited to help other people accomplish their goals and writing a reference is something I take pretty seriously.

I think it’s mainly because I was taught at an early age to always place a high value on my name and my word. Never allow anyone or anything to corrupt or tarnish either.

Good solid references are valuable for a variety of reasons whether you’re applying to a school, new job or membership into an organization. They’ve definitely benefited me throughout my career and I’m grateful for every one of them.

I don’t believe in writing generic or false references just to check the box or ‘do a favor.’ It’s a disservice to everyone involved, especially if I’m signing my name on it.

Here are a few things I weigh before agreeing to write any type of reference.

  1. Be honest– I’ve met some interesting people that were cool to engage with but I would definitely think twice before hiring them or encouraging someone else to. No matter how “nice” or “charming” a person is, I don’t ignore red flags. If you have doubts, remember that your name and your word will be on the line both now and in the future. There’s also a very good chance that an employer or admissions official will contact you directly to verify the information provided in your reference. I don’t want to ever be in the position of having to lie or fumble around to remember everything I wrote.
  2. Real relationship – Sometimes you can receive a request for a reference from someone that you really didn’t know that well. You may have met them in passing at church, during office calls or at a function here or there. In those cases, I let the person know upfront that I can’t honestly give an accurate assessment of their character or capabilities and why. If they’re serious about their success, they’ll respect your candor. The last thing they should want is a generic reference letter that sounds and looks like it came straight off a Microsoft Word template. Not a good look.
  3. Get the details – Before writing anything, I always try to first contact the person to make sure I fully understand what type of reference they need, the proper format and the deadline, especially if the initial email was vague. I don’t want to leave any room for error.
  4. Consideration – I once received a request for a reference on a Monday night that was due Wednesday morning (of that same week). It was also the same week of my final exams. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. A formal reference request shouldn’t be a last minute, ‘oh hey by the way’ type of thing. Sometimes unforeseen things occur, but If a person constantly displays a pattern of “last minute” behaviors, then I think twice about bending over backwards to accommodate them.
  5. Maintain Integrity – There are times when I’ve gotten a phone call out of the blue from an employer for an informal job reference (public affairs is really small). Regardless of our relationship or the conditions, someone is expecting me to provide a truthful, fair and accurate assessment and I’m going to do that. Whatever form you communicate it in, be able to fully stand behind any reference you provide. Again, it’s your word and your name on the line.

Dijon N. Rolle is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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