I’m a fan of infographics. They may be a bit old hat these days but I think they can be a really striking way of presenting information. I had a bash at doing one for ‘How To Get A Job In PR’ and this is the result. It’s surprisingly hard to get across the tone and content of a whole book in one infographic!
I write about a dozen employment reference each year for the Taylor Bennett Foundation alumni. A well written reference can take some time to write and can make all the difference to whether or not you are offered a position. Usually new employers ask ex-employers for a reference once they decide to offer you a job and often the contract is sent to you ‘subject to references’ – meaning that they have the right to withdraw the offer if the references don’t come up to scratch.
So, how should you go about getting a good reference?
Every single reference request I receive asks whether the candidate is punctual. EVERY SINGLE ONE. If poor timekeeping is your thing then you need to snap out of it sharpish. Everyone is late sometimes – the trains get delayed, your cat dies, the washing machine floods the kitchen – exceptional circumstances which any reasonable employer will be sympathetic about. However, if you are habitually late, even just a couple of minutes each day, you’re not being professional and it will be reflected on your reference.
Be honest and trustworthy
This is another question every reference requests asks, “is the applicant honest and trustworthy?” I can’t think of a time when I’ve ticked the “no” box for this one, but I absoultely would if I had reason to.
Don’t pull sickies
Most reference requests will ask how many days you’ve had off sick in the past 12 months. The person writing the reference is legally obliged to tell the truth so they will have to say if you’ve had lots of time off. If you’ve had time off for a genuine illness then there’s nothing wrong with that – we all get the flu now and then. If you’ve had a considerably amount of time off for sickness you might want to address that with your employer before you get to the reference stage and if it’s a one off thing – like you broke your leg and had to have six weeks off – it’s not likely to cause issues. However, if you are someone who habitually takes time off work because you have a hangover, or feel a bit down in the dumps or are dreading a particular meeting and you pull a sickie, keep in mind that those days will also appear on your reference and the employer may question why you take so much time off for illness.
Ask for the reference
Quite often I receive a reference request and the employer won’t tell me what the job is that the candidate is being interviewed for. It’s then really really difficult for me to tailor the reference to be as useful as possible. Usually, this is because the request has come from the HR department of a very large organisation and they send out standard requests with little room for personalisation and I then have to guess what the position might be. It would be much. much easier to write a decent, relevant reference if the person the reference is for actually tells me in advance that I should expect to receive a reference request for that particular role. If nothing else, it’s just good manners to write to the person who you’ve put down as a reference to say “I’ve interviewed for this job and they want to offer it to me subject to a reference. Would you mind writing me one please?”
Blow your own trumpet
It may be that your current or previous manager writes a lot of references. I write a lot of them and I usually have to go back to look at the applicant’s appraisal to make sure I am highlighting the things they are really good at. When you write to your referee it might be worth including a list of ten things you achieved during the time you worked with them. Something along the lines of “I know references can be a pain to write so I thought it might be helpful to list some of the things I achieved when I worked there – please don’t feel obliged to include them in your reference but hopefully it will make writing this reference a bit easier.” I’d love an email like that – it would make my life so much easier and would mean I’d mention the most relevant achievements in a reference.
Say thank you
Once you’ve started your new job, write to the person who gave you the reference to say thank you. You may need them to write another one in the future and it’s a good idea to be polite about it.
Finally, a couple of truths about references
It is not illegal to write a bad reference.
There’s a myth that pops up now and then that ex-employers cannot write a bad reference and it’s simply not true. They cannot write a dishonest reference and that’s a different thing entirely. References must be accurate and truthful or there may be grounds for ex-employees to sue. That means if you have had a disciplinary action in the past, it is perfectly legal for your employer to write about it in a reference. However, some firms now prefer to just not give a reference at all, rather than write one which truthfully tells of your poor performance, in order to avoid any danger of being sued. I once had an employee specifically ask me on his last day not to write him a bad reference, even though he knew his performance was below par and that we had given him very direct feedback and adequate time to address those issues and he still failed to do so. I suggested that perhaps he should not offer me as a referee at all as I would feel obliged to write a truthful reference.
References are optional
Keep in mind that no one is legally obliged to give you a reference – they can refuse to write one – so good manners are advisable. If a potential employer asks a previous employer for a reference and they refuse to then alarm bells will start ringing.
11. Office etiquette
15. Tips for writing
I’ve made a few resolutions myself: lose weight (ahem, I make this resolution every year but one year I’ll crack it, right?), write and publish two more books, and network with more PRs and academics. It’s not a long list, but each of those things are pretty hefty goals and I work best when I have something to aim for.
If you’re still pondering your resolutions for this year you might want to consider making them career-oriented. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Make use of your appraisal
Most large companies, and plenty of smaller ones, hold yearly appraisals for their employees. Most of the time they’re a pain in the backside because it involves filling in a long form and finding ways of bragging about your achievements without actually bragging, and highlighting things you need to work on without seeming completely incompetent. Sound familiar? No one likes filling in those forms. No one. However, everyone likes reading what other people wrote about them – even if it’s not complimentary. We are hard wired to want feedback and as lovely as it is for your colleagues and boss to tell you you’re brilliant, it doesn’t help much in terms of improving and getting better at what you do. We all want to get better at what we do, don’t we? Most people don’t make the most of their appraisals. They fill in the forms about themselves, their staff and their colleagues (and their boss if it’s on of those fancy 360 reviews in which you are asked to point out your bosses faults and then hope they don’t fire you). They read the feedback and have a chat about it with their manager. They may even set some goals and targets for the year and then the appraisal goes in a drawer and is never looked at again until they have to write the next one in twelve months time. Don’t tell me you’ve never done that – I have. It is a huge waste of everyone’s time if you do that so don’t. Take that appraisal out of your drawer once a month and make notes on it. What have you achieved in the last month? What have you sucked at? Make a point of noting any new business wins you’ve been involved in and any particularly brilliant projects you’ve managed. Did you get a hugely impressive piece of coverage for a client? You will forget a lot of this stuff by the time you have to fill in your next appraisal form so if you get into the habit of noting it down each month it will make your life so much easier when you have to do the next one. Reading your last appraisal regularly should also sharpen your focus so that you achieve the goals you and your manager set for you in the last one. Don’t waste the opportunity to get better.
Invest in professional development
PR is an ever-changing industry with new and innovative approaches to the way it is practiced evolving all the time. If you want to be considered an expert at what you do, you need to invest in your professional development and that means training. Both the CIPR and PRCA offer great training courses. Previous Taylor Bennett Foundation trainees have benefited from training from both industry bodies and the feedback is always really, really good – they love it and they find the sessions incredibly helpful. If you’ve had an appraisal you should have a good idea of any areas you’re weaker in so seek out some training courses that might address those – if you’re lucky, your firm might stump up the cash for them. If not, you should still seriously consider paying for a course.
This is one of my personal goals for this year. I want to write two more books, one of which will be PR related and one is a novel which I started a long time ago and have finally decided to finish. I also plan to blog a bit more often so you can expect more regular posts here. If you’re working in PR the chances are that you do a fair bit of writing and the only way to get better at it is to do more of it. Now here’s the great news, you can write anything and it will improve your writing. In other words – you can write for fun! If you don’t have a blog, why the hell not? Even if no one ever reads it it is a brilliant way for you to hone your writing skills and to express your opinions. You might want to make it PR related and comment on industry issues. You might want to make it something completely unrelated to work and start a blog on sewing or cars or travel or cats or music or any of the millions of different subjects that might interest you. The point is that you should get in to the habit of writing regularly so that you flex that writing muscle. You might also like to volunteer to write for other people. Lots of charities would love someone to do some writing for their web pages so you could consider that. You could also just write a lot of reviews on Amazon or Trip Advisor and build your word count that way. By the way, lots of Amazon reviewers get given stuff for free just so that they will review it – FREE STUFF!
You should never stop reading. See that little widget over on the right hand side of the page with all the books whizzing through it? Those are the PR books I recommend you start with. I always have at least one industry book on the go. I also read a lot about self-publishing because I’m still relatively new at it and so want to learn from others. I read for fun (crime thrillers and historical fiction mostly) and I read to be informed (newspapers, magazines, websites, social media sites). Reading will improve your knowledge but it will also improve your writing. You’ll increase your vocabulary and will start to understand how different mediums require different tones. This blog is quite conversational and chatty, as is my book, but if I were writing an annual report for a FTSE 100 company then the tone would be much more formal (and a bit boring, but hey that’s what annual reports are).
I know you’re rolling your eyes right now. Everyone tells you to network, don’t they? What about if you hate standing around in a room of people you’ve never met before and marching up to them to introduce yourself is your idea of hell? You’re going to have to get over it I’m afraid. There are lots of brilliant ways to network without having to physically be somewhere – Twitter is great for that. In the past week I’ve been invited to speak to a group of American students (via Skype) by a US PR professor because we talked on Twitter. It’s pretty cool that I can make those kinds of connections without setting foot on US soil. I also use LinkedIn for professional networking and I have a Facebook fan page which is related to my writing (my personal page is not for public consumption – very, very few work colleagues or PR acquaintances make it to friend status on there, but there are an honoured few so if you’re one of them you can consider yourself special). I love online networking, it’s free, it’s usually instant and people are generally very friendly. That last point – the bit about friendly people – is an interesting one because although it may come as a surprise to you, the vast majority of people are very approachable and most will go out of their way to help other people if they can. I wrote to a lot of PR practitioners and academics to ask for quotes for How To Get A Job In PR and only two actively said no – one because his firm wouldn’t allow it, and one because he had a ridiculously busy work schedule and wouldn’t have the time, which is fair enough. A few ignored the email completely but even counting those the vast majority of people said they would help – and asked for absolutely nothing in return (I gave them a copy of the ebook as thanks for their time, but they didn’t know they were going to get that). They were lovely, and helpful and kind and despite the horrible things you read about happening in the world I really believe that 95% of people are good. This is not just restricted to online relationships so it’s possible to march up to someone at an industry event and introduce yourself and for them to smile and talk to you. Honestly, it happens! Once you’ve got over the fear of doing it a few times you might even enjoy it.
I’ve guest blogged today over at the PRCA.
I’m delighted to announce that How To Get A Job In PR is out now!
Buy it here by clicking on the book over there >>
And here’s the video promo!