Skip to main content
Blog Bernard Letendre

Personal development

What not to do when seeking a professional recommendation

We’ve all had to ask for a hand. I certainly have and wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t received some help along the way from people who knew me and were willing to give me a hand by putting in a good word on my behalf or helping me secure a meeting with some person or another. I’m talking of course of introductions, referrals and recommendations.

I’ve provided over the years some enthusiastic recommendations – whether verbally or in writing – for people that I knew very well, thought highly of and had no hesitation whatsoever vouching for based on their character and their accomplishments. I have also happily introduced people I knew (or who were warmly recommended by someone I trust) to others when I thought that the two of them might benefit from the contact. But asking for, and agreeing to professional courtesies of this nature is tricky and governed by what I would describe as basic rules of etiquette and common sense. There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing it.

One of my daughters recenlty found herself in a bit of of pickle on this front. Having held a supervisory role last summer as part of her student job, she was approached by someone who had reported in to her and was looking for a professional recommendation from her. The problem, my daughter explained to me, was that the employee in question hadn’t performed especially well and as a result, she was very uncomfortable endorsing her. On the other hand, she might find herself working with this person in the future so she didn’t want to simply turn her down flatly and run the risk of creating a difficult working relationship next summer.

My advice to her was to let her colleague know that she would be willing to provide feedback about her work to a prospective employer but that she would have to be completely honest and transparent as it was a matter of reputation and integrity. Accordingly, she would have to paint a complete and balanced picture of her contribution – including a number of areas of required improvement. As this employee’s assessments over the summer had been somewhat underwhelming, she ultimately decided to pull her request and not ask my daughter to provide a recommendation on her behalf.

There is quite a step of course between a simple introduction at one end of the spectrum and a full-blow recommendation at the other end. But even the simple act of bringing a person to someone else’s attention requires some care.

Imagine if you would the following scenario: You’re sitting at home on a weekend enjoying a quiet afternoon when suddenly the phone rings. You don’t recognize the number on the call display but think “Oh, what the heck!” and decide to pick up.

Stranger: – Good afternoon, Sir. This is John (or Cindy, or any other name you may wish to imagine). How are you doing today?

Me: – Hum. I’m well thank you. I’m afraid I’m not placing you, John. Do we know each other?

Stranger: – Well, not exactly Sir but we live in the same city and as a result, are loosely connected via many hundreds of people.

Me: – I see. It’s a big city, John. What can I do for you today?

Stranger: – Well, Bernard – I can call you Bernard, right? – I own a home renovation company and I heard that one of your neighbours is looking to have some work done. I was wondering if you would be kind enough to recommend me for the job.

Me: – But John, I know nothing of you. I’ve never met you; I know absolutely nothing about your work and frankly, I don’t even know that neighbour that well. Having no direct or indirect knowledge of your work, I don’t see how I could legitimately reccomend or endorse you in any way.

Stranger: – That shouldn’t be a problem, Bernard. If you look up my web site, you’ll find a summary of my extensive experience as well as many very flattering testimonials. All I need you to do is pass my contact information along to your neighbour together with a link to my web site and put in a good word for me.

Me: – John, I’m afraid I can’t do that. Recommending someone is a matter of credibility and reputation and I simply can’t recommend someone whose work I know nothing about.

Stranger: – I understand Bernard. In that case, I would propose that the two of us get together for lunch or coffee. Once you know me personally, you’ll have no hesitation whatever recommending me for any job. In fact you may well want to offer me a job directly. Would you be available for lunch next week?

Me: – Johh, I receive unsollicited phone calls every single day, often multiple times per day. Usually, I don’t even pick up the phone and there wouldn’t be enough hours in a week to speak with everyone who makes these calls, let alone have lunch with them.

Stranger: – I understand, Bernard. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Me: – Have a nice afternoon, John and good luck with everything.

As I said earlier, professional courtesies such as an introduction, a referral or a professional recommendation are tricky. The example above may seem a bit far-fetched but in fact, something like it is extremely common and happens all the time – especially right here on LinkedIn.

If you’re the one being asked for such a courtesy, keep in mind that any form of endorsement – even something apparently as innocuous as passing along someone’s resume or contact information – can engage your credibility. So if you decide to pass along someone’s name, contact information or resume, remember to be completely transparent; to make it extremely clear how and how well you know this person, to describe the nature of the relationship you have with this person and make it clear to what extent you are recommending or endorsing him or her, and on what basis.

If you’re the person doing the asking, remember that professional courtesies such as introductions, referrals and recommendations are governed by some rules of etiquette and common sense – such as not soliciting favours of this nature from complete strangers; that a so-called “recommendation” from someone who knows you very little or not at all will have exactly the same amount of credibility, to the point perhaps of being completely worthless; and that an inappropriate request could end up being detrimental to your interests and reputation.

There are much better ways of getting your name out there in a favourable light where and when it matters, but that is the topic of a follow-up article titled “So you want to network, eh?” which you will find here.