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Should You Write That Letter of Recommendation?

If I were still a teaching professor, at this time of year I would have been inundated with student requests for letters of recommendation. Alas, I retired 1 ½ years ago so this is one chore I no longer have to do. What’s more important is the ethical dilemma I used to deal with no longer exists. That is, whether to play it straight and talk about the good and bad points or give the students the benefit of the doubt and play up their good qualities. Generally speaking, I would put the best face on letters of recommendation. However, I would never conclude a letter recommending a student for a workplace position with a positive recommendation unless I was convinced the student would be a productive and ethical employee.

A few years ago, I read an excellent paper on The Ethicist Blog, which is a publication of The Academy of Management Ethics Education Committee, and it still resonates with me today. In the article, the authors look at some of the salient issues in deciding whether and what to write about a student. Here are some of their observations:

  • The student requesting the letter of recommendation was a poor classroom performer.

  • I don’t know the student well enough to make a candid recommendation in the performance areas needed.

  • The student is annoying and I really dislike her/him.

  • The student had average, or unremarkable performance.

The blog also identifies “The Four Questions.” If I do the letter of recommendation,

  • Who gains, and how much?

  • Who gets harmed, and how much?

  • What do I owe others [i.e., the people involved], if anything?

  • What do others owe me, if anything?

These are ethical issues, which are appropriate to consider in deciding whether to write the letter. The key for me always was to make a cost versus benefit analysis in deciding whether to write the letter. The biggest benefit, assuming it’s a positive letter, is to the student who might not otherwise get the position. I’d like to think the potential employer benefits as well since the organization will get a dedicated, hard-working student with strong ethics and a solid work ethic, which I’ve identified in the classroom, and that is a plus for any employer. I might benefit as well from knowing I had a role in helping the student get the job.

On the other hand, all those benefits turn to costs if the student hasn’t earned such a positive letter and I give it anyway. Even the student is harmed because there is a [strong] possibility that she/he won’t be able to perform as expected and may loose the job in short order.

The problem today with writing a positive letter when you have doubts about the student is it risks doing damage to the relationship between the university and the potential employer. Potential employers rely on those letters. They rightly figure that the professor best knows the qualifications of the students, can best assess their performance, and can talk about communication skills, arguably the most important factor in hiring a student right out of college.

The virtues of honesty, integrity, fairness and responsibility inform writing letters of recommendation. Beyond ethics, don’t forget that we live in a litigious society so we should be careful about what we say. Although it’s unlikely a student will sue, the idea that a letter may lead to legal action if it was false, fraudulent or misleading should give all professors pause before making that dreaded decision whether to write a letter of recommendation.

Finally, ask yourself how you would feel if the letter was published in a newspaper or online. Would you be proud if people find out about it? If you have any doubts, don’t write the letter.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 19, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His Higher Education Ethics Watch blog has been awarded one of the top 75 blogs in this field by Feedspot.

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