References are some of the most powerful tools in your career toolbox, but you rarely get to show them off until late in the application process. That’s where LinkedIn recommendations can help, especially when hiring managers see them the instant they check out your profile (and that’s just the first of many LinkedIn profile tips you’ll find here). Follow this playbook to generate LinkedIn recommendations systematically as you gain work experience, and you’ll be in great shape for your next interview.
P.S. LinkedIn has 675 million monthly users, so it’s worth your time and energy to seek out recommendations.
You need to ask to generate LinkedIn recommendations regularly
If you browse LinkedIn you’ll come across posts of people who humble brag about doing such a good job that they just “earned” a recommendation. They stand upon their pedestal to insinuate that anyone who doesn’t earn references this way just isn’t on their level.
And it’s utter garbage.
You can do the best job in the world for years on end and still never receive a “natural” recommendation on LinkedIn. People are just preoccupied with their own lives. Case in point:
- I raised a class average by nearly an entire letter grade as a teaching assistant, but LinkedIn isn’t big in academic circles. Nobody thought to write a recommendation.
- In my first job after college, I managed the only successful side of the business (not really by choice) while the owner just… left. He didn’t give me a recommendation ,either.
- None of my clients went out of their way to write recommendations from that first job, and neither did coworkers.
Just before leaving my first job, I wrote someone a recommendation in the hope of setting an example for everyone else. His work ethic didn’t quite justify it at the time, but I also knew the toxic culture at that place had a severe negative effect on him (as it did on all of us). I figured I could cut him some slack and do a good deed.
Yet nobody at that company thought to write a recommendation for each other after that—not even the guy who received one from me.
The lesson was clear: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
How to earn meaningful LinkedIn recommendations
Before you can ask for anything, you need to prove yourself. That usually means doing a project for or with someone. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s one of the best ways to generate LinkedIn recommendations because the references tend to include hard examples of your work. That makes them more effective.
Those projects don’t necessarily need to be in the field where you want to work. Character references are still powerful, and some of the best ones you’ll ever see are about transferable or soft skills, like leadership or client relations. In fact, recommendations are one of the best ways to display those soft skills to set you apart from every other applicant with the same hard skills as you.
If you have time to hunt down meaningful projects to build out your resume and your profile, then you should follow this guide on building work experience. It’ll show you how to track down decision makers, how to introduce yourself, and how to find the “product-market fit” between the skills you want to develop and the needs of their businesses.
Start searching for:
- Small businesses that never have enough time or resources
- Your chamber of commerce
- Business improvement associations
- Local charities
- Community groups and churches
- Your friends’ parents, who could introduce you to more professionals
I did this during my unemployment stint, and it worked. Someone at a local college needed a social media assessment, so I met with that person and came up with a social assessment for a small fee. Then I asked for the recommendation. It’s not the best one on my profile today, but it raised my credibility at the time to help me get my next proper job later that year.
Once you’ve done a project, then you can ask for a recommendation.
Who can you ask for a recommendation on short notice?
Sometimes you need a recommendation right away. In that case, see if any of these are options for you:
- Professors who remember you fondly
- Student club members who worked with you
- Managers or coworkers from past part-time jobs
- Student association members who can vouch for your work ethic
- Leaders of volunteer organizations
This works. I managed to get a recommendation on LinkedIn from a former supervisor for my volunteer work on a small academic journal, even though I’d done the work around 2 years earlier. There’s no statute of limitations on references, after all.
It’s not about work in my current field, but it still holds significant value because it shows that I went above and beyond what was required in the role. That’s valuable in every industry and will serve you well for your entire career.
Pro tip: don’t buy LinkedIn recommendations
There are some services to buy recommendations (they’ll look like this), but the nature of job applications means that you come under more scrutiny as you move through the interview process. The hiring manager takes a closer look at your LinkedIn profile. His or her other team members (your future coworkers) will also likely be asked to take a look at your profile.
If it’s a small or medium business (say, under 20 people), then you might even have the entire company scoping out your LinkedIn profile after your first or second interview.
You’re likely to get caught as you near the hiring manager’s final decision, obvious ethical violations aside.
What if you create fake profiles to write your recommendations?
Fight temptations to purchase recommendations if you don’t have any. It’s likely that hiring managers will unravel it. First of all, it’ll look suspicious if your recommendations come from cheap profiles who only have 20 connections. You could connect 20 different profiles to each other, but anyone viewing those profiles will notice the same group of people and become suspicious.
It’s not worth it—even if you’re desperate and your boss won’t be a reference anymore. There are always better ways to generate LinkedIn recommendations.
Those fake recommendations would also need work experience from places where you’ve worked. Even if you list fake profiles as employees of real companies, the administrators of those company pages can disavow profiles they can’t verify as past or present team members. Word can get around, and it will instantly ruin your chances with the hiring manager.
You’d also need to invent elaborate lies for your cover letter and throughout the interview process to explain or make believable references to projects that make up your work history. It would only dig a deeper hole, and would require so much work that you could have just earned a recommendation the good-old-fashioned way with the same amount of effort.
Lacking references probably isn’t your fault, but taking shortcuts will strip you of any credibility that remains. You don’t want to burn your bridges on the long shot that nobody will notice bought recommendations. Build a foundation with recommendations from your recent contacts, then build up your work experiences to earn more in the field where you want to work.