The importance of letters of recommendation in a job search and how to request them

letters of recommendationLetters of recommendation can be essential items to gather in preparation for a job search, but they’re especially important if you’re coming out of prison and looking for work. Along with a well-prepared resume or JIST card and your turnaround packet, one or more letters of recommendation may be what convinces a hiring manager to offer you a job. And you might want to request these before leaving prison.

That’s exactly what Dana Wilson of Fresno, Calif., did.

During her 9-1/2 years in prison, Wilson took advantage of every opportunity that came her way. “I felt that something must be wrong with me on the inside that I made choices that made me end up where I did,” she says. “I checked out what kind of groups they had (in prison) and jumped right in. I took advantage of every single self-help group I could get my hands on. I got certificates left and right. It was a never ending growing experience for me.”

And part of that growing experience was training for several types of work inside prison and deciding to concentrate on one of them. For 4-1/2 years, Wilson worked at the CALPIA Dental Lab, where she learned how to create dental protheses. And while doing so, she was thinking ahead to how she would find work once released.

Dana Wilson

Dana Wilson

Get letters of recommendation from multiple supervisors

As part of her planning process, she requested letters of recommendation from a series of supervisors.

“When I knew my first boss was going to retire, I asked him for a letter of reference. The boss underneath him got that position. So I waited a couple of months and asked him for a letter of reference. Then they hired a new guy and I asked him too,” she says.

And those three letters came in handy when she got out of prison, returned to Fresno and applied for a position at a dental lab. She gave all of them to the hiring manager.

“When I applied for this job I laid everything out on the table,” Wilson says. “When they asked what’s PIA (officially known as CALPIA), I told them it’s the (California) Prison Industry Authority. They looked kind of weird. So I said I’ve been in prison, but let me tell you what I’ve done.” That’s when she told them about all the classes she had taken, the groups she had participated in and the certificates she had earned, all of which are kept in a neatly organized binder, what we call a turnaround packet.

The lab where Wilson worked as a dental technician – her first job out of prison – closed, and she’s had two other jobs since then. And she gets a letter of recommendation from every place she works.

“I think it’s really, really important for people who have been incarcerated to do that. If they run a background check and things pop up it will bring questions to the employer’s mind,” she says. “I can say this is who I was but this is not who I am today. My past doesn’t define who I am now.”

Tips on how to solicit letters of recommendation

Getting a supervisor from a prison job to write you a letter of recommendation may be the best way to begin. That way you’ll have something to start out with. But if you didn’t bother to do that or don’t have a good working relation with your prison job supervisor, don’t worry. Here are some other approaches you can take.

When soliciting letters of recommendation:

  • Make a list of potential people to ask. These could be former supervisors both inside and outside prison, teachers of courses you’ve taken or supervisors at places you’ve volunteered.
  • Contact your possibilities first by phone – or in person if you can – to see if they’re willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. And, if they are, follow up with an email. Be sure to send them your resume or JIST card and describe the type of work you’re looking for. You may feel shy and afraid to ask for recommendations, fearful that they might say, “No.” It’s important to overcome your fear and just do it.
  • If it’s a former supervisor, you may want to remind them of the skills you bring to your work and some of the specific things you accomplished while on the job. You need to make it easy for someone to write the letter and also make sure they highlight your most important strengths and accomplishments.
  • Include the date by which you would like to have the letter completed. (It’s best to ask for a date at least a week or more before you actually need it.)
  • Be aware that these letters can be written so they can be given to hiring managers at a variety of places you will apply to, like Wilson did. Or they can be addressed to an individual hiring manager for a specific job you’re applying for.
  • Make sure to send a thank you note – either hand written or by email – to every person who writes a recommendation letter for you.
  • It’s possible, but unlikely, that someone will ask you to write the letter of recommendation yourself and they’ll sign it. If that’s the case, you can find lots of examples online. It’s best to use these examples for ideas of what to include and not copy them word for word, however.

Job search tactics: Getting to the hiring manager

business-170645_640In these days when job boards and company websites can suck resumes into a black hole never to be seen again, it’s often only those eager to try different tactics who will find success.

But it’s not easy. And it takes a lot of work. You have to be proactive, not passive. The ultimate goal is to approach the person who has the power to give you what you want – a job.

Forget the human resources departments. They’re just there to weed applicants out. Your goal is to get to the manager of the department in which you are interested in working.That person is usually also the hiring manger. In most cases in smaller companies – maybe those with 20 employees or less – the owner would be the hiring manager.

In order to get to the hiring manager, you must learn to think like a detective and gather clues to discover who in a certain company might be able to hire you. Taking some or all of the following steps can help get you on your way.

Make a list

The first thing to do is make a list of companies that have the type of work you’d like to do. Start with maybe 25 or so and expand from there. If you are familiar with Excel, create a spreadsheet or use any method you feel comfortable with – even pencil and paper will do. Include the company name, address, website URL and the main phone number. Leave space to fill in the name of the hiring manager of the department you would like to work in, as well as their direct phone number and email address.

Search the Internet

Do a search using the names of each company and the title of the hiring manager, for example XYZ Corp. + warehouse manager. This may bring up articles in which those people were mentioned or a list of company managers or executives. It could also lead you to the LinkedIn profile of the very person who has that position. Sometimes a search won’t reveal anything, so don’t be disappointed. This is just one of many tactics that you can use.

Check out company websites

It’s important to learn as much as possible about the companies you’d like to work for, and one of the best ways to do this is by exploring their websites. Many companies have newsrooms and media centers, which are actually designed to help journalists but can also be a wealth of information for anyone who’s savvy enough to check them out. You may find a list of company managers, or press releases that often quote various managers on topics that may be newsworthy or of interest to the general public.

Call and ask

Call the company’s main phone number and ask for the name of the manager of the department that you are interested in. Tell the receptionist that you want to contact that person and make sure you ask the proper spelling of their name and what their official title is.

Once you know that person’s name, you can search for them online and check out their LinkedIn profile, which can be a wealth of information about the manager’s career experience and even personal interests.

Mine social media for info

If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, open one right away and create a profile. Then invite as many people as you can to be in your network. LinkedIn is an invaluable treasure trove of information about people and the companies they work for.

In order to use LinkedIn to see if you have a connection to someone who might be employed at a company you’re interested in, go to LinkedIn.com and search for the name of the company. Click on that company, and the names of the people in your network who are working there will pop up. Contact those people, no matter what department they’re in, and ask them for information on what it’s like to be employed there and to introduce you to people in departments you might be interested in.

Besides LinkedIn, you may want to also check out Google+ and Twitter, which are also very good sources of information about what’s going on at companies and serve as additional ways to contact hiring managers who might be active on those platforms.

Trying some or all of these tactics will get you closer to the hiring managers who have the power to employ you. And if they don’t happen to have any openings, they may know friends or colleagues who do.

In a job search, as in many areas of life, it’s who you know – as well as what you know – that counts.