Here’s a suggestion that has worked for me: After leaving an employer, send your former boss and some co-workers very polite and thankful e-mails. Mention how much you enjoyed being there, knowing them, how much you learned and so forth. | Most of the time, you will get a reply. Bingo! There’s your letter of reference, header and all, indicating where it came from. | Print it and place it into your portfolio. —K.K., writing in to Joyce Lain Kennedy’s career advice column —Use E-Mail Notes as References[?] (Job Center, Dallas Morning News)
K.K. is right about the value of not burning one’s bridges, and Kennedy is right to offer her “sunny thanks” for an optimistic and upbeat suggestion. But I wouldn’t recommend re-using a personal e-mail from a former employer as if it were a formal letter of reference.
Most people who use e-mail professionally do understand that e-mail is anything but private, but asking permission before reusing somebody else’s words in another context is at the very least a matter of common courtesy. (In fact, some companies, including my own university, require employees to append to every message legalese that explicitly prohibits the forwarding or sharing of e-mail upon which K.K.’s suggestion depends.)
Were I to learn — from a potential employer, perhaps — that a student had not even offered me the opportunity to revise a personal note for a more formal audience, I would wonder why the student felt it necessary to trick me into writing a letter of reference. My doubts would affect the enthusiasm I would be able to muster when called out of the blue to assess the skills and attributes of a student I might not have seen in years.
On the other hand, I would be pleased and flattered if the student who receives an informal e-mail of praise from me were to foward my own words back to me, with an enthusiastic note saying something like, “Thank you so much for these kind words. I know you are very busy, and probably get requests for letters of recommendation all the time… but would you mind if I used this e-mail as a letter of reference?”
Such a request — particularly if it were accompanied by a subtle bulleted list reminding me of the student’s accomplishments and updating me on his or her activities since our last contact — would probably motivate me to block out a bit of extra time and reach for the official letterhead.
The student who demonstrates professionalism and a mastery of communication skills — especially when making polite, subtle requests for recommendations — will get a much better letter from me.