How to Use Social Proof to Boost Your Reputation and Get Hired


Don’t overlook the value and the power of social proof in your job search. As an older worker struggling to build traction in the workforce, a social proof strategy can be the convincing factor that triggers your job offer.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini first coined the term “social proof” in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion back in 1984. It was one of six “principles of persuasion” that Cialdini believed were the determining factors in our ability to get someone else to do something or to buy something.

Social Proof is the power of other people’s testimonials, recommendations, and endorsements to influence and sway your decision. Nobody wants to buy an untried or untested product. If someone you trust and believe tells you it’s good, you’re more likely to buy it.

Social Proof - Old School

Social Proof, Your Credibility, and Your Brand

This is why getting endorsements has always been important in your job search and career development process.

Real people’s opinions carry significant weight based on their professional experience with you.

In Cialdini’s persuasion paradigm, their endorsement constitutes social proof. Their targeted and explicit endorsement is the justification a prospective employer needs in order to develop (again in Cialdini’s vocabulary) “certainty” about you.

In the social media age, obtaining social proof goes beyond old-school letters of recommendation and the ubiquitous “References available upon request” line at the bottom of your resume.

Social Proof vs. Job References

You’re familiar with the agonizing process of lining up friends and colleagues to vouch for you when you’re up for a job.

You may trust the people who agree to write reference letters or talk to hiring managers on the phone. But you can’t be sure of what they’re actually going to say in those phone conversations. If you ask them to write a letter of recommendation and just hope that they do a good job, you may be stuck with a generic testimonial that doesn’t serve you.

If you’ve got a truly dedicated colleague who knows you well and is expressive and eloquent in singing your praises, how often can you rely on them to take a phone call for you? What if they’re too busy? Do you have someone else who is just as good?

In short, there is too much about the traditional process that is out of your control. And if social proof is what you need to persuade someone to hire you, you want to be able to control that testimonial message.

A New Approach to Promoting Your Value

Gathering testimonials and references today needs to be a more strategic process than ever. It has to maximize the value of social proof, and truly influence your target contact’s perception of and predisposition towards you. It’s a competitive career market, and older workers are at a well-documented disadvantage.

This new social proof strategy takes place in two stages. The first stage is to establish a set of testimonials that are targeted to address your top skills, talents, and successes. Then, publish those testimonials where they can be widely accessible (i.e. your LinkedIn profile).

The second stage is to refer recruiters and hiring managers to those testimonials. Invite them to connect personally with your references for added information and a deeper conversation about you.

Planning Your Social Proof Strategy

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve grown accustomed to the ubiquitous use of social media “influencers” to endorse products and people.

The number of “Likes” on a person’s profile, or on their latest post or picture is a form of social proof that has become very much ingrained into our culture.

Recruiters and hiring managers are susceptible to the same social proof conventions. Whether they realize it consciously or not, their interest in hearing from your job references will follow the same quest for validation, confirmation, and “certainty” that they employ when they’re looking at restaurant reviews on Yelp, or reading customer comments on flat-screen TVs on Best Buy.

Your social proof strategy will use the conventions of social media to create a series of short, targeted, and expressive testimonials to highlight the most important aspects of your career history.

The number of testimonials will depend on what you want to convey, and the number of people you can enlist to write them. I would target at least three testimonials to begin with, and see if you can build up the reservoir over time to include six, maybe eight.

Think of the colleagues and friends who will be writing these testimonials as your own set of “influencers.”

The testimonials should be brief: one or two paragraphs with two or three sentences in each. This length should be relatively easy to write, and also easy to digest for the prospective recruiter or hiring manager who will read them.

These testimonials will be posted primarily as “Recommendations” on your Linkedin Profile (follow This Link to learn more about how to post recommendations). But you’ll be able to use them in other ways, including on your blog or website “About” page. You’ll also be able to pull selected quotes from these testimonials that you can use in your bio, for example.

Selecting Your Influencers

Choose the people you are approaching for testimonials in terms of the value proposition and the career niche you have chosen or are concentrating on. You want each person to be able to speak to a distinct aspect of what you offer, the expertise you have accumulated, the experience of working with you, or the results that you have delivered.

Chances are you have a range of people to choose from in planning your social proof strategy. As an older worker with a deep set of career experiences, you may not have a clear idea of who would be the best candidates for this task. Here is a set of suggested guidelines to use in assembling your team of influencers.

First, take your cues from the way you have organized your resume and your LinkedIn “Experience” section. Recent colleagues from recent positions are high priority connections. They have worked with you in the context that your next employer is going to likely find most relevant.

Your reporting relationships are also important. You want to gather a mix of managers, peers, and reports. You also want to include vendors, clients, and other colleagues if they can highlight important aspects of your career, or single out a special incident or circumstance.

Start by listing all of the potential people who could be good references and narrow the list down from there. Think about their background and current status, how you worked with them, and what they can talk about. You want to have a mix that shows you off in the best way possible.

While it is always a good idea to have a recent manager sing your praises, if a peer has a more compelling story to share that really illustrates your talent, that might be a better recommendation.

Not everyone will agree to do this, so be prepared for some polite rejection, even if these people would still be willing to help you out in other ways.

Targeting Your Testimonials

Each testimonial should serve a specific purpose.

You also want to include testimonials that highlight both your hard skills and soft skills, as well as your maturity, wisdom, and any perhaps hidden talents that are not covered elsewhere in your profile.

Work with your colleagues to outline the specifics of what they’re going to put in their testimonial. Have an unhurried conversation (it might take two) to share your request for their testimonial and why you value them for this endorsement. It could be because of your respect for their stature and achievements. It could be because you worked closely with them and you value their opinion. Listen to their point of view as well. Find out what they feel or believe are the most important qualities they want to share about you. They might surprise you with aspects of your career that you forgot about or didn’t think were important.

Between your ideas and intentions, and their perception and experience of you, there will be, at that intersection, a hopefully compelling testimonial.

Respecting Their Time

Everyone is super busy. If a colleague is worth approaching, and if their opinion carries some weight, they may be too busy to sit down and write your testimonial – or at least do it in a timely manner.

If you’ve contacted them and they’ve agreed, and you’ve forwarded the LinkedIn Recommendation link, that request may sit in their Inbox for weeks or months. It may feel awkward to keep checking in with them.

Here’s a way to help them out (and help yourself out).

Based on the outline that you’ve already discussed with them, offer to take the first pass at the testimonial. I guarantee you they’ll be more than grateful. It’s a win-win. You get what you want, and they can stop feeling guilty about procrastinating.

In composing the first draft for them to review, try writing in their voice. Before you begin, think for a minute about how they speak and how they write, and try to mimic their style and turns of phrase.

When you speak with them initially about the testimonial, pay attention to how they’re saying what they’re saying. Copy down any specific phrase that is a good example of how they speak and express themselves. This way, in the likely event that you’ll be taking the first pass at the testimonial, you’ll be prepared.

Send them your draft and let them suggest changes. They will more likely edit the draft themselves and share it with you for your sign-off before they post it.

Make It Mutual

Another way of making this a win-win for your colleague is to offer to write a recommendation for them at the same time as they’re offering to write one for you.

Taking this approach instantly turns your asking them for a favor into a project you are doing together for your shared benefit. After all, how many times does one of your contacts call you up to say: “Hey, I’ve got something we can do together that will enhance our reputations and our career prospects.?”

While they will have to make more of an effort than if you wrote it for them, they are getting something equal in return.

Make sure that you choose someone who is reliable and lives up to their commitments. One way of ensuring they deliver is to (politely) hold back sharing your draft until they’re ready to show theirs. If they wind up not delivering, and you’ve already written your testimonial for them, you will be disappointed. But at least you’ll find out that they are not the supporter you thought they were. So you’ll know not to contact them for a favor in the future, and you certainly won’t list them as a job reference!

Keep It Light and Bright

Keep the testimonial short and quotable. Similar to your Linkedin About section, narrow the focus to a few well-defined qualities, skills, or outcomes. Remember: 1-2 paragraphs of 3-5 sentences each.

The ideal testimonial starts with a positive statement that summarizes the endorser’s relationship with you or the context of the endorsement. A couple of examples:

“John and I worked closely together at Company X . He took the lead on a number of successful projects, including our acquisition of Startup Y. His greatest skill as a negotiator was his ability to________. As a teammate, you always knew where you stood as he was a clear and effective communicator.”

“John reported to me at Company A at a particularly challenging time at that firm. One of the things that stood out for me from our working experience was his willingness to shoulder extra responsibility to help out other colleagues who were having a hard time covering all of their accounts. He managed this stressful time very well, and never complained (to me at least).”

Calibrate Your Expectations: A Silver Lining

The social proof strategy that I’m suggesting is rigorous. You may have a tough time enlisting everyone you’d like to enlist (even if you’re willing to help them write the testimonial).

There is a silver lining, here, even for the people who turn you down, wind up not delivering, or taking too long to write their piece. By engaging in this process, you have assembled a defacto team of supporters and recommenders. Many of these people will still be willing to talk to recruiters or hiring managers on your behalf.

If writing the testimonial is not their thing, a phone conversation with a recruiter may be more doable for them. By having had the initial conversation about the testimonial, they’re actually prepped for this conversation. You won’t have to be concerned about what they’re going to say.

Your Front Line Job References

Depending on how many testimonials you have, and on what they say, an employer may feel like they have enough information about you. If not, and they still want to talk to someone, move to the second stage of this process, and pitch your testimonial writers. This way, if there’s something that the employer wants to hear about in more detail, they are already positioned and focused on the topic from the testimonial.

If the employer wants to talk to someone new, refer back to your initial list of possible testimonial writers and suggest a couple of people who you think would be able to speak about you appropriately. Maybe these are people who are still in process writing a testimonial for you. Or they could be people who support you, but who turned you down because they didn’t have the time to write the testimonial.

Make sure to prep your colleagues for a conversation with a prospective employer. Even if they’ve written a testimonial, they need to know about the specific job you’re up for, who the person is who will be calling, and what you want them to emphasize in the conversation.

Start Now!

If you’re starting or in the midst of a job search, get going. Don’t wait for recruiters or hiring managers to ask for references. Have them already available on your LinkedIn profile as Recommendations, where they can deliver the right message, burnish your reputation, and solidify your credibility.

If you are not currently looking for a job, but interested in building your network and a positive perception of your professional value, you should still reach out to colleagues for their testimonials. They add a different dimension to your profile and make you a more accessible person.

Having candid, expressive, and personal recommendations gives people one more reason to reach out to you, or one more reason to respond when you reach out to connect with them.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


    • Thanks, Michael! Yes, that’s the additional networking benefit.

      Please see the update to the article under “Make It Mutual,” where I have added the idea that you can also do this as a mutual project – you both write testimonials for one another. A potential win-win!

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