How to Write a Reference

By Cynthia M Piccolo

As soon as you find yourself in a charge or supervisory capacity, you'll find that you're asked for references. But what should be included, and what should be avoided? Having worked in healthcare recruitment, I've seen reference letters that range from the proverbial ridiculous to the sublime, so I can definitely give some advice.

First, the basics:

  • Use hospital letterhead. If none is available, use a clean, plain sheet of paper. (Some things not to use, based on references I have received, include: children's stationery, torn coil notebook paper, coffee-stained paper.)
  • Date the letter. Potential employers will want to know how current the reference is.
  • Find out if the applicant wants the reference addressed to a specific person/facility, or simply "To Whom it May Concern." Also ask if there's anything in particular that should be addressed, such as a specific clinical skill, leadership ability, etc.
  • Just like when you're preparing your own résumé or cover letter, pay attention to punctuation, grammar, and spelling. A poorly written letter reflects badly on you and, maybe, the applicant.
  • Sign the letter. If it's not signed, the potential employer might question who actually wrote it.

    Second, regarding the body of the letter:

  • State your position. Potential employers generally only want references from individuals in a supervisory position, not references from coworkers.
  • Include the dates that the applicant worked on the unit, how long you have worked with the applicant, and some detail about your contact with the applicant. For example, "Joe has worked on our orthopedic unit since March 1, 2000. In my role as Permanent Charge Nurse, I have supervised Joe for three shifts a week for almost one year."
  • Discuss the applicant's interpersonal, critical-thinking, and clinical skills. Also discuss other factors, such as: does the applicant participate in committees; how does s/he handle a heavy workload; is s/he on time for work; how are her/his relationships with patients, peers, subordinates, and supervisors; how are her/his teaching abilities; etc.
  • If the applicant has been in a leadership role (e.g. Acting Charge Nurse), discuss how well s/he did in the role.
  • Even if you really like the applicant, avoid being too effusive in the letter because it will sound unprofessional, inappropriate, false, or as if you had more of a personal than a professional relationship with the applicant. (An example of what not to write, is this introductory line I once saw: "I am writing this reference with a mixture of grief, angst, and reverence.")
  • At the end, include your contact details in case the potential employer has follow-up questions.

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