I wrote my first letter of recommendation at the age of twenty-four. It was for a recent graduate of the painter apprenticeship program, run by the International Union (then Brotherhood) of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), headquartered in Washington, D. C.
The twenty year old, who worked on my commercial painting crew, was applying to Purdue University’s School of Engineering in West Lafayette, Indiana. He sought a recommendation from me, because he’d taken two required apprenticeship courses under me.
A few months later, my employer reminded me to prepare a written employee evaluation (performance review) for the same worker. And, I was reminded to give a copy of the document to the employee, after he read it and signed a form that he had done so. The painter, only four years younger than I, was scheduled to leave for Purdue’s main campus.
By the way, letters of recommendation were regularly issued by PDCA-member contractors for their employees. Written employee reviews of union/IUPAT members were not.
I remember the crumpled sheets of paper at my feet, as I tried to write each document. The person was counting on me to say something positive about his work, and him as a worker. He trusted me to present his background in a professional way, one that would benefit him – and his future.
Writing a recommendation or performance review for an employee is a big responsibility, when you think about it. One that, back then, my father encouraged me to do my best job at.
Both documents were well received. The young painter moved to college. Life happened. A few years later, I left Indiana after losing my father suddenly. From time to time, I wondered what had happened to that crew member, with sharp mathematical skills. But I never checked.
Fast forward. A level three connection, by the same name as that crew member, appeared recently on LinkedIn.com. It couldn’t be the same person, I thought. This man’s title was listed as “Principal Partner and CEO” of a major design-architectural-engineering firm, headquartered on the West coast.
I clicked on the profile. Full-access was restricted to premium business account holders. A list of over nine 1st, 2nd, and 3rd connections stood between us. I halted the linkage there. Something in my gut told me that guy – whether he was the IUPAT painter, or not – would not want to be trailed/traced in that way.
“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line” approach sounded like the best approach. So, I wrote a brief letter to the man.
Less than a week later, I received a response.
Thanks for contacting me. It was great to hear from you. I’ve wondered what happened to you. Sorry to hear about your father. He was quite a guy.
I should have contacted you years ago. You’ll never know the positive impact that your letter of recommendation and performance review (employee evaluation) had on my life. It helped to open doors that, otherwise, may have been inaccessible, or difficult to enter. It helped me to open doors for others.
Please call me the first chance you get. I see (LinkedIn profile) that you’re seeking a new opportunity. . .”
During our first phone conversation, I learned about a few of those doors that had opened. I learned how “quality-of-life-changing” a 100-word letter of recommendation, or a 150-word performance review (employee evaluation) can be.
Also, it reminded me of something that my 92-year old grandfather once said. He’d read me a letter of reference, that he’d just written for one of his “grown-up” former parishioners.
“Over the years, I’ve written over a thousand of these letters. I’ve taken each one very seriously, and written each with great care. Each one was very important. To the person it was about.”
Interestingly, that is what the entire process is about. It’s about the person being recommended, or the person whose performance is being reviewed, or evaluated. I believe that it’s also about the person doing the recommending, or the reviewing/evaluating.
Their respective futures will forever be impacted by the relationship – the space in this universe – that they have shared in the past.
When I think about that, I’m inspired to do my best when recommending, referencing, and reviewing/evaluating others. I’m inspired to make a positive impact on their lives. Even if or when I have no way of knowing, in advance, what that impact will be.
“We’re in this life together!” RDH