How to handle online references

When professional introductions move online, different rules apply.

Story highlights

  • Presence in "online bazaars" such as car-lender Getaround is part of a digital persona
  • Reach out to your target before sending an online recommendation request
  • Be careful when a site user has zero recommendations
  • Write recommendations for businesses and others yourself
It's a phrase uniquely hated by high school teachers and internship coordinators everywhere: "Could you write me a reference?"
But it means something different now than it did even a decade ago.
Sure, trigonometry teachers still need to crank out those form letters packed with hoary cliches like, "a pleasure to have in class," and "interested in education in the truest sense of the word" and "correctly follows APA guidelines at least 80% of the time when turning in papers."
But now the rest of us are treating our networks like the people version of Yelp, giving (and soliciting) reviews all over the place.
LinkedIn has long had a "ask to be endorsed" function (that's seriously what it says), where coworkers and bosses can gush about you right on your online resume. But the site's no longer the only space where you're begging for accolades.
The person borrowing or lending you a car (see Getaround), a bike (see Spinlister), an apartment (see AirBnB) or even an electric drill (see ToolSpinner) wants to know that you are not, in fact, a psychopath.
So in a weird way, your presence on these online bazaars, where social media meets the marketplace, has become part of your online persona. And wouldn't it suck if a potential employer Googled you and learned that you misrepresented the "spacious" parking lot in front of your lawn (see Parking Panda), which is actually ... your lawn?
Ergo, we offer up some tips for giving (and getting) digital referrals that will show the world just what a wonderful human you are.
1. Don't just use the site's "request a referral" function.
It's jarring to be going through your day and then suddenly get an email that basically says, "A person in your life wants you to sign up for a site you've never heard of and write nice things about him/her."
Reach out to your target reference first, and ask if she'd mind doing you the favor. And don't feel too bad about the ask. Research shows that people enjoy the ego boost of doing something altruistic, so in a way, you're doing her a favor.
2. Write it for her.
Not ENTIRELY, but give her some bullet points. See, stringing together words is kind of hard for a lot of people. (See: online comments sections. Zing!)
And if your friend or former boss isn't entirely sure which of your virtuous qualities you want highlighted, she runs the risk of writing something off-topic and wasting both of your time. Outline what you're looking for her to say (e.g., "It'd be awesome if you could just mention that I'm responsible and respectful and take good care of my stuff." Assuming that is not a blatant lie.)
Also give her a basic sense of how long it should be -- a sentence, a paragraph, a whole freaking recommendation letter?
3. Volunteer to return the favor.
Ask if she'd like a recommendation on the same site or another one. Everyone could use a boost.
4. Put some stock into strangers' reviews...
Zero reviews on a site that hinges on trust should give you pause. (One AirBnB user had her apartment "burglarized and ransacked" by a guest, prompting the company to add an insurance policy.)
If you're going to lend someone your car or apartment (not just a jigsaw), try to Google him, get him on the phone and/or friend him (temporarily) on Facebook.
5. But not too much stock.
It isn't hard to create a fake profile and make nice, allegedly third-person comments about yourself. So, depending on your personal level of paranoia, the above steps of added due diligence might be wise even for established users.
6. Be a good little reviewer bee.
Whenever you deal directly with a person online (buying a used book on, etc.), take the 20 seconds afterward to rate the experience.
If it was good, you're growing their business, and if it was bad, you're doing a good deed for the rest of humanity. We know, we know, you're too busy to rate experiences after-the-fact. That's why you're doing dealings online in the wee hours of the night while eating Bugles and wiping the crumbs on your shirt, right?
Well, giving and getting reviews is a (sad, half, proxy for) actual human interaction. Take whatever you can get.