How to write a reference letter for a former employee, friend or child?

Occasionally you may be called upon to write letters of reference for former employees or for friends who are applying for a job or for children who are applying to schools. Begin a letter of reference by stating how long you’ve known the person in question and in what capacity. Follow with an evaluation of how well the person suits the position for which he or she is applying.

Stress the applicant’s positive points and downplay the negative — an unsatisfactory worker or a problem child always deserves a second chance in a new situation, and if you condemn someone in writing, you can be sued.

If you don’t think highly of the applicant, show your true feelings by writing a lukewarm recommendation, implying your reservations rather than stating them outright. Personnel departments know well how to interpret unenthusiastic recommendations.  On the other hand, if you really like the person you’re recommending, be sure to say so openly, with many specific examples of his or her fine character and good wok.  A reserved recommendation may be interpreted as halfhearted.

You may feel strongly that an applicant who is asking you for a letter of reference is totally unsuited to the position being sought. If the applicant is a friend or a child, you can simply tell him or her that you would not be the best individual to make the recommendation.  If you are an employer, and a company requests information on a former employee, you must respond. In this case, have the applicant telephone you. Express your reservations calmly and rationally over the telephone, but don’t make any accusations you can’t prove.

Letters of reference are important, since your credibility and the future of the person you’re recommending often depend on them. They deserve your thought and care.