First, let’s break down the difference between references and recommendations.
References are what you provide once your potential employer has expressed interest (as opposed to listing them on your resume, which has become outdated or redundant). Today’s hiring managers or recruiters will often ask for specific references—for example: “one former coworker, one former direct supervisor, and one personal reference.” Letters of reference are pretty outdated too (and some companies have policies not to provide them).
Recommendations, on the other hand, are more like testimonials. You’re probably most familiar with the ones you see on LinkedIn, but they can also take the form of endorsements—for example, an online portfolio for a creative or web designer might have testimonials from clients.
Recommendations or referrals are not guarantees, but they can give you an edge in the job market. Former employers, colleagues, friends…even your online social networks are valuable when it comes to getting your foot in the door—and the rest is up to you.
Even getting in the door for an interview is becoming more difficult for those without connections. Referred candidates are twice as likely to land an interview as other applicants, according to a new study of one large company by three economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. For those who make it to the interview stage, the referred candidates had a 40 percent better chance of being hired than other applicants.
So when, how, and who do you ask for recommendations?
The best place to start is current (be careful who you ask if your job search isn't public knowledge) and former colleagues, bosses, supervisors—even clients—and craft your "ask" through your LinkedIn connections. It's never too soon to start asking; in fact, collecting them before you're even on the job market is a great practice!
While LinkedIn accolades may seem gratuitous on the surface, recruiters, hiring managers, interviewers, and potential new co-workers WILL be interested in reviewing these publicly stated testaments to the quality of your work.
"John, I hope you remember our work together on the Alcatraz Project. Would you be comfortable placing a recommendation on my Profile that describes my role and value-add?"
"Jerry, it's been a great experience to work on your team and learn from you. I am requesting a recommendation that can be used to describe our working relationship and my growth in this position."
"Liz, I enjoyed getting to know you and your business throughout my time with XYZ Corporation. Your operation is certainly among the most well-run in the LED manufacturing industry! Would you be comfortable placing an endorsement on my Profile that outlines our collaborative efforts in your business success?"
Not-a-Pro Tip: Make sure the person you're asking remembers you (and that you're on good terms). A form letter "ask" is the worst thing you can do, especially with former bosses or colleagues with whom you've had little to no contact with over the past years. Timing is also crucial.
Selecting the person to ask: When it comes time to asking for the recommendation itself, it boils down to your relationship with the person. It takes time to build the kind of trust and shared experience on which to base a recommendation. Biro offers some guidelines. “While every workplace relationship is different, I recommend giving it at least one year before asking for a recommendation. It’s also useful to make a practice of asking for recommendations once a year — treat it as a task and choose your targets carefully. Think about what you want said about your accomplishments and skills, and who among your contacts is best positioned to provide you with a solid recommendation.”
Tracy McCarthy, senior vice president of human resources at SilkRoad Technology, a software-as-a-service solutions provider that manages career cycles within companies, recommends having a clear strategy for why you want a recommendation in the first place. “If you can’t articulate why, then why are you going through the motions? Once you have a clear picture in your mind, develop your short story around it. Then, go to people whom you respect, internally and externally, tell them and sell them on your story and ask for the recommendation.”
Where to Start? Plan, prioritize, make contact outside of LinkedIn (via email or phone), and make sure the person you're contacting will recognize your name.
Before asking anyone for recommendations, you need to prioritize. Look at all your work experience and create a list of all the people who witnessed your work. You’d ideally want to identify people who are known in your industry or function and work for respected companies. You’ll want at least one recommendation for each job and at least some of these recommendations should be from people more senior than you.
I am always amazed when I get requests from complete strangers asking me to endorse them. I’d never endorse or recommend anyone I’ve not actually worked with – such an endorsement would be worthless.
Instead of sending a generic requests asking for a recommendation – give them something specific to recommend you for. For example, ask them to talk about XYZ project you did together and the role you’ve played.