1. Write routine message types such as goodwill messages.
Share the love! Goodwill messages are as essential to healthy professional relationships as they are in personal ones. Thank-you, congratulatory, and sympathy notes add an important, feel-good human touch in a world that continues to embrace technology that isolates people while being marketed as a means of connecting them. The goodwill that such messages promote makes both sender and receiver feel better about each other and themselves compared with where they’d be if the messages weren’t sent at all. In putting smiles on faces, such notes are effective especially because many people don’t send them—either because they feel that they’re too difficult to write or because it doesn’t even occur to them to do so. Since praise for some can be harder to think of and write than criticism, a brief guide on how to do it right may be of help here.
- The 5 S’s of Goodwill Messages
- Thank-you Notes
- Congratulatory Messages
- Expressions of Sympathy
- Replying to Goodwill Messages
- Recommendation Messages and Reference Letters
Whether you’re writing thank-you notes, congratulatory messages, or expressions of sympathy, follow the “5 S” principles of effective goodwill messages:
- Specific: Crafting the message around specific references to the situation that it addresses will steer such messages away from the impression that they were boilerplate template statements that you plagiarized.
- Sincere: A goodwill message will come off as genuine if it’s near to what you would say to the recipient in person. Avoid cliché Hallmark-card expressions and excessive formality such as It is with a heavy heart that I extend my heartfelt condolences to you in these sad times.
- Selfless: Refer only to the person or people involved rather than yourself. The spotlight is on them, not you. Avoid telling stories about how you experienced something similar in an attempt to show how you relate.
- Short: Full three-part messages and three-part paragraphs are unnecessary in thank-you notes, congratulatory messages, or expressions of sympathy, but appropriate in recommendations that require detail. Don’t make the short length of the message deter you from setting aside time to draft it.
- Spontaneous: Move quickly to write your message so that it follows closely on the news that prompted it. A message that’s passed its “best before” date will appear stale to the recipient and make you look like you can’t manage your time effectively (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 144).
In the world of business, not all transactions involve money. People do favours for each other, and acknowledging those with thank-you notes is essential for keeping relations positive. Such messages can be short and simple, as well as quick and easy to write, which means not sending them when someone does something nice for you appears ungrateful, rude, and inconsiderate. Someone who did you a favour might not bother to do so again if it goes unthanked. Such notes are ideal for situations such as those listed in Table 27.1:
|Employer||Employee||The employee went above and beyond the call of duty, perhaps under exceptionally difficult circumstances.|
|Employee||Employer||The employer gave the employee an opportunity for promotion.|
|Employee||Coworker||The employee mentored the co-worker so that the latter looked good to customers and management.|
|Applicant||Employer||The employer is considering hiring the job applicant, who sends a thank-you message within 24 hours after a job interview.|
|Applicant||Previous employer||The job applicant sends their previous employer a thank-you note for endorsing them as a reference.|
|Business||Customer||The customer ordered products or services.|
|Business||Customer||The customer complained about the service, enabling the business to improve and better meet customer expectations.|
|Business||Another business||One business endorsed another, directing customers their way.|
|Customer||Employee||The employee (e.g., restaurant server) demonstrated exceptional customer service, perhaps under difficult circumstances.|
|One person||another||One person’s act of kindness, including kind words said or sent, gifts given, or hospitality extended, was appreciated.|
In most situations, email or text is an appropriate channel for sending thank-you messages. In fact, sending a thank-you note within 24 hours of interviewing for a job is not just extra-thoughtful but close to being an expected formality. To stand out from other candidates, hand-writing a thank-you card in such situations might even be a good idea.
Following the 5 S’s of goodwill messages, a typical thank-you email message for a favour might look like the following:
I just wanted to thank you for putting in a good word for me with your manager. She told me today that I came highly recommended, and I knew right away who that came from—only the most kind and thoughtful person I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with! I really appreciate all the help you’ve given me over the years, but especially for bringing me this opportunity. It means a lot to me and my family.
If there’s anything I can help you with in return—anything at all—you name it. I owe you one.
Notice that this message is short, specific to the situation that prompted it, sincere, relatively selfless, and spontaneously sent the day of the incident that prompted it. It would certainly bring a smile both to the recipient and sender, strengthening their professional bond.
Celebrating the successes of your professional peers shows class and tact. It’s good karma that will come back around as long as you keep putting out positive energy. Again, the 5 S’s apply in congratulatory messages, especially selflessness. Such messages are all about the person you’re congratulating. You could say, for instance, I really admire how you handled yourself with such grace and poise under such trying circumstances in the field today.
Few situations require such sincerity and care with words as expressions of sympathy. Misfortune comes upon us all, and tough times are just a little more tolerable with the support of our friends, family, and community—including those we work with. When the loved-one of a close associate dies, for instance, expressing sympathy for their loss is customary, often with a card signed by everyone in the workplace who knows the bereaved. You can’t put an email on the mantle like you can a collection of cards from people showing they care.
What do you say in such situations? A simple I’m so sorry for your loss, despite being a stock expression, is better than letting the standard Hallmark card’s words speak for you (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 147). In some situations, laughter—or at least a chuckle—may be the best medicine, in which case something along the lines of Emily McDowell’s witty Empathy Cards would be more appropriate. McDowell’s There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love (2016) in collaboration with empathy expert Kelsey Crowe, PhD, provides excellent advice. Showing empathy by saying that you know how hard it can be is helpful as long as you don’t go into any detail about their loss or yours. Remember, these messages should be selfless, and being too specific can be a little dangerous here if it produces traumatic imagery. Offering your condolences in the most respectful, sensitive manner possible is just the right thing to do.
It wouldn’t go over well if someone thanked you for your help and you just stared at them silently. The normal reaction is to simply say You’re welcome! Replying to goodwill messages is therefore as essential as writing them. Such replies must be even shorter than the messages that they respond to. If someone says a few nice things about you in an email about something else, always acknowledge the goodwill by saying briefly “Thank you very much for the kind words” somewhere in your response. Without making a mockery of the situation by thanking a thank-you or shrugging off a compliment, returning the love with nicely worded and sincere gratitude is the right thing to do (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 147).
Recommendation messages are vital to getting hired, nominated for awards, and membership into organizations. They offer trusted-source testimonials about a candidate’s worthiness for whatever they’re applying to. Like the résumé and cover letter they corroborate, their job is to persuade an employer or selection committee to accept the person in question. To be convincing, recommendation and reference letters must be the following:
- Specific: Recommendation and reference letters must focus entirely on the candidate with details such as examples of accomplishments, including dates or date ranges in months and years. A generic recommendation plagiarized from the internet is worse than useless because it makes the applicant look like they’re unworthy of a properly targeted letter.
- True: Exaggerations and outright lies will hurt the candidate when found out (e.g., in response to job interview questions and background checks). They will spoil the chances of any future applicants who use recommendations from the same untrustworthy source if the employer sees that source cross their desk again.
- Objective: An endorsement from a friend or family member will be seen as subjective to the point of lacking any credibility. Recommendations must therefore come from a business owner, employer, manager, or supervisor who can offer an unbiassed assessment.
Not all employers require recommendation letters of their job candidates, so only bother seeking a recommendation letter when it’s asked for. Opinions are divided on whether such documents are actually useful, since they are almost always “glowing” because they tend not to say anything negative about the applicant despite the expectation that they be objective. Some employers—especially in larger organizations—are instructed not to write recommendation letters (or are limited in what they can say if called for a reference) because they leave the company that writes them open to lawsuits from both the applicant and recipient company if things don’t work out.
On the other hand, recommendation letters provide potential employers with valuable validation of the job applicant’s claims, so it’s worth knowing how to ask for one and what to ask for if they’re required as part of a hiring process. Even if it may be some years before you’re in a position to write such letters yourself, knowing what information to provide the person who agrees to write you a recommendation is useful to you now. Indeed, since most managers are busy people, they might even ask you to draft it for them so they can plug it into a company letterhead template, sign it, and send it along. If so, then you could ghost-write it using the following section as your guide.
A recommendation letter is a direct-approach message framed by a modified-block formal letter using company letterhead (see unit 20). The most effective letters are targeted to an employer for a specific job application, though it’s not uncommon to request a “To Prospective Employers” recommendation letter without a recipient address to be distributed as part of any job application. In any case, the following represents the standard expectations employers have for recommendation letter content and organization:
- Identify the applicant by name, the position sought, and the confidential nature of the letter—e.g., This confidential letter is written at the request of Elizabeth Barrie in support of her application for the position of Legal Assistant at Bailey & Garrick Law.
- Clarify the writer’s relationship to the applicant and the length of its duration—e.g., For three years I have been Ms. Barrie’s supervisor at Stanton & Sons Legal Counsel and can therefore say with confidence that she would be a valuable addition to your firm.
- Identify the job applicant’s previous duties—e.g., Ms. Barrie began working for us as a part-time legal research assistant during her studies in the Law Clerk program at Algonquin College. She began with mainly clerical duties such as preparing official legal documents and archiving our firm’s records.
- Give examples of the applicant’s accomplishments and professional attributes. Wherever achievements are quantifiable, include numbers—e.g., After initiating and executing a records digitization project involving over 12,000 files, Ms. Barrie conducted more extensive legal research activities. Her superior organizational skills and close attention to detail made her a highly dependable assistant that our six associate lawyers and two partners relied on heavily to conduct research tasks. Her conscientiousness meant that she required very little direction and oversight when performing her duties.
- Compare the applicant to others—e.g., Without a doubt, Ms. Barrie has been our most productive and trusted legal assistant in the past decade.
- Summarize and emphatically state the endorsement—e.g., Any law firm would be lucky to have such a consummate professional as Ms. Barrie in their employ. I highly recommend her without reservation. If you would like to discuss this endorsement further, please contact me at the number above.
Because honesty is of paramount importance in a recommendation letter, including specific evidence of performance flaws wouldn’t be out of place, especially if used in a narrative of promotion and improvement. Including criticism of the candidate helps the credibility of the endorsement because it makes it more believable. After all, no one is perfect. Criticism resolved by a narrative of improvement, however, strengthens the endorsement even further. Consider, for instance, how good this looks:
Ms. Barrie tended to sacrifice quantity of completed research tasks to quality, completing perhaps 17 out of an expected 25 assignments per day. However, she increased her speed and efficiency such that, in her last year with us, she was completing more tasks with higher accuracy than any other assistant we’ve ever had.
Of course, this general frame for recommendations can be adapted and either extended or trimmed for channels other than letters. LinkedIn, for instance, allows users to endorse each other, but the small window in which the endorsement appears favours a smaller wordcount than the typical letter format. In that case, one paragraph of highlights and a few details is more appropriate than several paragraphs, especially if you can get several such endorsements from a variety of network contacts.
When a recommendation is necessary, be sure to ask a manager or supervisor who’s known you for two years or more if they can provide you with a strong reference. If they can’t—because they’re prohibited from doing so by company policy or they honestly don’t think you’re worthy of an endorsement—they’ll probably just recommend that you find and ask someone who would. Don’t be shy about asking for one, though. If they aren’t directed otherwise, management understands that writing such messages is part of their job. They got to where they are on the strength of references and recommendations from their previous employers, and the “pay-it-forward” system compels them to provide the same for the people under—people like you. That way, you too can move up in your career.
Knowing that every employment situation you’re in provides an opportunity for a reference when it’s time to move on, you should always do your best so that you can get a strong reference out of it. Consider also that if a résumé lists references at the end but omits them for certain job experiences, a hiring manager will wonder why you weren’t able to get a reference for that job. It certainly could have been due to company policy prohibiting managers from providing references for legal reasons or conflict with management that was entirely their fault; without the full picture, however, the omission opens the door to doubts about the candidate.
Despite being treated by some as optional, goodwill messages are essential to healthy professional relationships and professional advancement as long as you follow the writing conventions associated with them.
Guffey, M.E., Loewy, D., & Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (8th Can. ed.). Toronto: Nelson.