To begin a discussion of the ethical context for writing recommendation letters, we should agree that—at least from the perspective of the person for whom the letter is written—letters can do great good or they can do great harm. Although some faculty question the importance of letters and even speculate as to whether or not they are ever read, others fiercely defend (or attack) their use and relevance, and insist that people’s lives are changed due to letters of recommendation.
Instructive in this regard is a 2002 letter to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education by the Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Physics at Troy State University, in which the writer quips: “Scoundrels always seem able to get good letters.” The writer summarizes how he spent a year after completing his PhD staring at the ceiling and getting no interviews, even though he had been assured by a professor that all three recommendation letters in his file were positive. “Only during this period did I come to understand that the aforementioned professor had plotted to keep me from getting a job . . . After 18 months, I resolved not to . . . apply in academia again. I worked in industry, and it was merely by chance that I later came to get full-time work in academia”(1).
In other articles on the subject of recommendation letters, Chronicle readers will find further complaints about foes carrying out vendettas, deliberate obfuscations, parallels between inflated grades and inflationary rhetoric in letters—even calls to abandon the system entirely and pay outside reviewers. On the other hand, readers will also find strong defenses of the current system, acknowledgments that inflationary rhetoric exists but that letters are critical nonetheless, arguments that letters are only one variable among many in the evaluative process, and insistence that letters teach us more about candidates than any other part of their application.
While many of the above examples go to the issue of letters for faculty seeking tenure and promotion, they also illuminate the ethical issues involved as we write letters for our students, who often approach the process of soliciting our aid in something of a nervous haze, not fully aware that none of us achieved our positions without the help of former faculty mentors writing letters of support for us. In a string of favors exponentially repaid, most of us write at least 10 times more (even 100 times more) recommendation letters than we actually received for ourselves; thus we contribute to a system that is only as good as the work we deliver to it. Only by better understanding the system can we hope to improve it.
And there’s nothing new under the sun. Just as modern studies do, studies on letters of reference from the 1920s and 30s show a questioning of the very functions of the documents, concern with the clarity, specificity, and credibility of qualitative praise, arguments about the effect of confidentiality in letters, and open attempts to warn selectors against particular candidates. Consider this excerpt of findings cited in a 1935 study (2), just as relevant today:
- The writer of testimonials and letters of recommendation is likely to view his task lightly.
- The writer for mere accommodation will often exceed his knowledge or falsify it.
- There is no way of checking against errors.
- Bias or carelessness of the writer is a factor.
- The writer may overstate or underestimate the case of the candidate.
- The writer may simply make inadequate statements perfunctory in character.
Interestingly, these same kinds of problems are just as relevant today, suggesting that very little has changed. In deep contrast, recommendation letter writers of old enjoyed far greater candor than they do today. Witness these now ironic excerpts from a 1936 study (3), quoting actual letters written to “recommend” public school teachers:
“Some people in this section have questioned her deportment on certain occasions. . . . I feel that she might do better work in another community.”
“Miss N came to us a year ago. She has been in three different systems in the four years of her experience. . . . We don’t feel that we should prevent Miss N from continuing her annual change.”
“His pupils are fairly well interested in their work, but never excel. I believe you could procure his services at his present salary.”
“She is married but her husband is not with her. . . . If she were not my sister I would like to speak of her in detail.”
“Please destroy this letter when you have read it.”
This pithy last statement is my favorite, in that its request was obviously not carried out. And imagine today if writers commented on someone’s salary or negatively on someone’s marital status in a recommendation letter—certainly a lot has changed in relation to the boundaries of writer commentary.
Considering, then, the substantial power that recommendation letters have to either help or harm the student, and assuming that by the very act of agreeing to write a letter we mean to help, let us begin by recognizing the ethical context in which we write, from the built-in implications to the nuances that we control.
These websites tackle ethical issues that commonly arise in the context of recommendation letters written within the medical field: