How To…….Write A Reference

“I have a member of staff who’s applied for another job.  Their new company has approached me for a reference.  The only problem is….I have nothing good to say about them.  What do I write?”

A reference request for a highly performing employee is never a problem to write.  It’s this opposite situation where managers often come unstuck.   Sometimes, you’ll just want to put your head in your hands and wonder “Where do I start?”

In fact, references do not have to be lengthy.  All you need to confirm are the employee’s basic employment details. (It’s worth checking to see if this is your company policy).  However, should you be in the position whereby you’re asked to provide a fuller reference, these are my tips:

1.  Start by confirming their post title and length of service.  It is always useful to confirm your relationship with the member of staff, particularly if it has changed during the period that you have known them (eg I was a colleague of x from June 2005 until January 2009, when I became his/ her line manager).

2.   Outline the key duties of their role.

3. Stick to the facts, or if you need to write a subject comment, qualify it with evidence.

4.  If you have been actively managing this member of staff and have been giving them regular feedback on their work, they will be aware of the areas where they still need to develop.*

5.  Ask the employee if there are any achievements of note that they would like to you include in the reference.

*Although all references are confidential, in the spirit of transparency I always share the reference I have written with my member of staff.  Even the poorly performing ones. 

Writing references can be, and should be, easy.  The key is your relationship with this member of staff.   References are never a problem if you have been actively performance managing your staff.  

To avoid any sticky reference requst moments in the future, invest the time in your staff now!

When the Feedback Sandwich Becomes Cheese-on-Toast

The Feedback Sandwich is one of the most recognised models for giving feedback. For those who aren’t familiar with this model, it’s a way to highlight an area of performance or behaviour where an individual needs to improve. The “developmental” feedback is presented in the following way:

1) Commence with giving feedback that is positive, complimentary and affirmative about the individual
2) Present a piece of developmental feedback (otherwise known as constructive criticism)
3) Finish with another piece of positive feedback.

I often present this model to junior managers as part of a “Giving Feedback 101″ module. But I have often felt that this model is outdated and isn’t particularly successful in leading to behavioural change in the person concerned. I have used this model myself when I have been faced with a particularly challenging situation where there’s little positive feedback that I can spontaneously and naturally give to an employee. The feedback sandwich forces me to stop and think about the positive elements that this member of staff has brought to the team and their work. It has enabled me to ensure that the member of staff knows that I do value them and their contribution and that I want them to improve.

More recently, I have been exploring the subject of feedback in more depth. I have found it interesting to learn that Nancy Kline in her book “Time to Think” supports the feedback sandwich. But only in the right context.

Fundamental to giving feedback (positive or negative) are three key elements:

1) Good interpersonal skills and a rapport / relationship with the individual
2) Crediblity – both as a giver of feedback and the actual content of the feedback itself.
3) Objectivity.

There are also two other factors that impact on the success of giving feedback: The time that the feedback is received and how the recipient reacts. Feedback is always received subjectively. An individual’s reaction will depend on their level of self-esteem and belief in their own capabilities.

Most of us “want” feedback, whether we act on it is a different matter. People like receiving feedback, but there’s no link between positive feedback equating to better performance. Equally, there’s no link between criticism and worsening performance.

For feedback to have an impact, it needs to be linked to a goal. The reason for this is that feedback is viewed by the recipient as data, whereas a goal is something that can motivate and inspire the individual. Givers of feedback cannot rely on feedback alone to motivate behavioural change. Giving the feedback in the context of a SMART goal will empower the individual to make the necessary behaviour change and ultimately lead to greater performance.

So, my thinking has changed on this subject. In my “Giving Feedback 101″ module, I will no longer be teaching the Feedback Sandwich, I will be teaching the Cheese on Toast model: Give feedback using the key elements of good interpersonal skills, credibility, objectivity and in the context of a defined goal.