Six more people in my office were let go this week and I may or may not be next. I am well-regarded in my office and frequently receive compliments on my work, but nobody’s safe these days. Like most people, I’m trying to punch up my resume in case I need it. I have a few letters of reference from previous employers and a list of references that’s still current enough. I think if I were to be laid off, I would get a great letter of reference from my boss too. I know you’re supposed to focus on results in your resume instead of just your job duties, so do letters of reference really factor in all that much anymore?


They absolutely factor in, but to what degree they advance your job search is entirely dependent on how you use them. Most people pass a reference letter or two across the table during a job interview, but if you want to wow recruiters with your performance history and increase the likelihood that you’ll score more interviews in the first place, you need to put these glowing opinions of your work to work for you much earlier in the process.

First replace the term “letters of reference” with “testimonials.” Reference letters are too long to be read by most busy hiring managers who simply scan for relevant information. These letters are actually compilations of individual testimonials that you can pull out to highlight any one of the variety of talents you bring to the table.

What exactly is a testimonial? It’s basically an endorsement of your skills, talents and ability to achieve results. What we’re really talking about here is the testimony of another person that you are a valuable employee. Different testimonials will work better in different situations, so it’s important to compile a library of various 1-3 sentence statements that promote you.

Why bother? Testimonials are a core part of an effective job search, as they enable you to more readily convert interviews to offers. By letting your hard work and reputation for results do the work for you, you accomplish many goals simultaneously, including:

» Critical third-party credibility: It’s easy to say your performance is second to none…but it’s convincing when someone else says it. The more significant the author’s title or well-known his/her company/institution, the better.

» Hesitation-busters: Testimonials allay a potential employer’s fears that you’ll take the money (or the stamps and stapler) and run. With so many horror stories about lost deposits and liquid lunching, testimonials show that you’ll take the money…and work.

» Creativity Clarifiers: With more unique career paths, testimonials help to clarify and show the bottom-line benefits of your creative background or approach.

» Identifier Inspiration: Potential employers want to see themselves in the authors of your testimonials. Enabling them to identify with clients you’ve helped in the past or employers you’ve impressed goes a long way in inspiring confidence that you are the person for the job. Testimonials show business owners having similar challenges and finding a common solution: you.

» Employee Expanders: Different testimonials from different parties will highlight different aspects and benefits of your abilities, thereby positioning you as more comprehensive and knowledgeable in your scope.

» Market Differentiators: The marketplace is crowded. Showing proof of a job well-done can greatly affect a hiring manager’s decision about whether or not to call you for an interview.

How do you get them?
Make a list of all the people you have satisfied (or blown away) with your relevant professional abilities. These may include past/current clients, past employers, and volunteer coordinators (just because you weren’t paid doesn’t mean volunteer position testimonials are invalid; in some cases they are more powerful because you weren’t being paid and you still demonstrated excellence).

Craft a pitch that will work for each individual party, rather than sending out a blanket email. Personalize this process, as you’re asking the giver to take time out of his/her busy schedule to market you. Avoid long, flowery paragraphs about your history together and how meaningful a compliment this testimonial would be to you. Keep it brief and get to the point.

Have a little respect. It’s important to remember that you are asking someone else to put their name and reputation on the line for you. If you flake out, embezzle funds, or get sued, the testimonial giver’s reputation can be adversely affected.

Encourage them to say what you want hiring managers to hear as it’s relevant to your relationship. For example, instead of saying “Can you give me a testimonial?” be more strategic. Try a more specific approach, such as “When we worked together back at State Farm Beth, I remember you regularly cheering me on for my project management skills and my ability to react well in a crisis. Would you be so kind as to help a potential employer know that about me by creating a testimonial which emphasizes those points?” Telling your testimonial-giver what you’re looking for helps them enormously because they are often unsure of what to write. And never ask them to endorse an aspect of your work that they are unfamiliar with, as it often creates discomfort on the author’s part.

What do you do once you have them?
Use them logically. Put relevant testimonials in relevant places. If one testimonial highlights your speaking skills, then paste that one in the Presentation Skills section of your resume.

Don’t rely on lists. Testimonials are far more impressive when placed individually and strategically beneath the result you achieved in your summary of your last job or where appropriate in your cover letter. If you have created a web site to assist in your job search, implement individual testimonials in a graphic sidebar rather than a web page labeled “Testimonials.” Busy people will not take the time to read an entire page about how fabulous you are. Instead, work different testimonials into the web design on different pages so the reader is forced to bump into them.

Update them. When you get a glowing email from a satisfied client or superior, hold onto it. Go back through your emails and review paperwork from past employers…any “atta boy” praise you received is a potential testimonial for your job search.

At the end of the day, people assume you will exaggerate your talents and results in the pro-active promotion of yourself, but they also assume that other people will stick to the facts. Think about what you want people to know about the good work you do, and then pass the megaphone to those who believe in your talent enough to shout it out.