Addressing weaknesses in a reference letter

Maybe some people don’t like providing references in general. Or they’ll provide references, but hate the time-suck for having to write it out. In my case, I actually don’t mind providing references for two reasons. 1) I truly care about my coworkers and student workers, and want to see them succeed. 2) Karma. Pay it forward. I’ve gotten many references from my old supervisors and coworkers, and I know they will still be providing references for me as I move on up in the library world.

One nice thing about references is that the questions are pretty much exactly the same no matter which company the person applied to.

  1. What was your association with the candidate? (colleague, supervisor, etc.)
  2. How long have you known the candidate?
  3. Describe the candidate’s role and responsibilities within your organization:
  4. Name some of the candidate’s achievements. How did they accomplish these results?
  5. What are this candidate’s strongest professional traits? Weaknesses?
  6. What is the candidate’s work style? (Ex. team player, independent, leader, high-pressure)
  7. In what environment would this candidate be most successful?
  8. If this candidate were eligible for rehire, would you rehire the candidate in the same or different role? Why?
  9. Do you have any additional feedback?

Pretty straightforward…except for the “weaknesses” question.

Gah. Weaknesses? I always trip over my own tongue when I’m asked that question in my own interviews, finally pushing out an awkward answer that I feel obliged to explain on end in a sentence structure that kinda sorta looks like English but it’s not. “Er, um…I work too hard?” I know I have plenty of weaknesses. Sometimes I operate on autopilot. Or I get mixed up and tell someone that a room reservation is missing when it is most definitely reserved (did that a few weeks ago during a weird migraine) and made someone nearly have a heart attack.

At least if I mess up at my own interview, it affects just me. Writing about others’ faults has a whole lot more responsibility.

So, how to write aboutothers’ faults? And without accidentally screwing up their job chances?

What did this librarian do to solve this thorny issue? I googled it.

The consensus seems to come down to these two DON’Ts and one DOs

  • Do not talk about character flaws. “Sometimes he’s kind of an asshole.” Character flaws are unforgivable sins in the hiring world. Unless, I suppose, you don’t like the person in the first place, in which case you should probably not have agreed to be a reference.
  • Do not use good qualities that can be interpreted as a bad one but are secretly good. “She’s a perfectionist.” Well, that can be a bad quality, but it’s actually a good one. And employers can see right through the act. It makes it look like you’re trying to hide the truly bad qualities about the person.
  • DO use real shortcomings through concrete examples, and show how the person is overcoming that shortcoming. “When we first hired him, he struggled with learning how to use an admittedly difficult but essential program, even after training. To overcome this difficulty, he asked me for the instruction manual, and read it every night at home, and during the slow times at work, he would practice using the program. His perseverance paid off, and has a knack for explaining it to others who have difficulty grasping the concepts of the program. He helped us revise and improve the training program.”

At least, that’s my understanding of what I found online. It shows an actual problem, instead of a falsely inflated one. It shows how the person overcame it, or is overcoming it. If I heard that from new hire’s reference, I’d definitely would see the example in the DO above as a positive thing. I’d love to have a person who perseveres in the workplace.

What do you think? Am I on the right track, or did I miss something? Please do add your comments!

 

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