Among the many mini-lessons in ethics offered up by The Dick Van Dyke Show (including not eavesdropping on your neighbors, not sticking your big toe in the bathtub faucet, and perambulatory care around ottomans), episode #108 is a moral tale about writing recommendation letters. Rob Petrie’s old pal, Neil Schenk, asks Rob to write him a positive recommendation letter for a job, playing on Rob’s guilt about owing him an ancient favor. The hapless Rob waffles, feeling he can only write him a neutral letter at best, and when Rob hesitates Neil simply writes his own letter and manipulates Rob into signing it. In the end, of course, the morally straight Rob Petrie opts for telling Neil Schenk and the employer who received the inaccurate letter the truth, and because it’s the world of the sitcom their old friendship is nevertheless preserved.
The dilemma above is not uncommon in the academic world, though here the situation is reversed, with the faculty member sometimes inviting the student to initially draft his or her own letter for review. Though some faculty swear they’ve never heard of this and some see it as a wholly unethical practice, I’ve talked to a good number of faculty who say a department head once asked them to write their own reference letter draft, and I’ve worked with plenty of students who were asked to do the same by a faculty member, who usually cites a busy schedule as prohibitive to the task. Presumably what follows is a document that is reviewed and rewritten, and hopefully the ghostwritten draft isn’t so much a letter in sentence and paragraph form as a list of accomplishments or examples that are useful to include in the letter, which is ultimately written by the proper party.
Without overstating the case that the act of writing recommendation letters has ethical implications and repercussions, there are a number of areas where questions of best behavior and protocol come to mind. Especially if a pushy student tries to control the process, it is worth remembering that the key decisions are yours to make, including whether or not you write the letter, your dual obligations to the student and the letter evaluators, and whether or not you share the letter with the student.
Sometimes the kindest, most responsible thing we can do for a student is refuse to write a letter of reference. Most faculty try to warm the student to this idea subtly, suggesting that they are too busy, that they’re not sure what to say, that there must be others who can write a more positive letter, or that they simply don’t know enough about the student, whom they might have had in class years ago.
Savvy students will usually recognize such responses as the faculty code for “no,” but the savviest might offer you a resume and a meeting or an e-mail to help you generate positive detail for a letter (a few have won me over by doing so). Also, the pushiest and most histrionic students might insist that you really are the best recommender they’ve got, and that your letter is critical to their very lives.
In this case, assuming you still don’t want to write a letter, here are some good reasons for not doing so, which you might share with the student if so moved:
- Your limited support of the student doesn’t match the weight of the opportunity—as in the case of a national scholarship—and your neutral or unsupportive letter might only do the student unintentional harm.
- You really know nothing beyond the student’s recorded grades, and you’re not inclined to get to know more, for reasons of time or temperament.
- You genuinely dislike the student, for good reason, perhaps because of bad classroom behavior such as chronic lateness or missed deadlines, or because you know the student abuses drugs or commits illegal acts.
- You’ve had encounters that indicate deep depression, unusual personal problems, or a level of anxiety that would affect the student professionally.
- You have knowledge that the student cheated on an exam or plagiarized on a paper, and thus you can’t justify helping to advance the student’s career.
- The student approaches you and nags you in such an unprofessional manner that you are fully persuaded that your endorsement would be a lie.
Admittedly, some of these reasons do sit you in judgment, and many faculty wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing their true reasoning with students, but good students always have options about whom they can ask for letters, and poor students and students in trouble sometimes do need to face the reality of how they got there. Faculty who say no for good reason suffer less than those who agree begrudgingly to write a letter, then feel divided in the very act of giving praise.
In the 1970s, the Director of the Hastings Center of the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, having problems with a new hire, contacted the employee’s references and took them to task. The references sheepishly admitted to the worker’s bad history, but felt obliged to help him. “Surely we owe something to our profession or field,” the Director argued—“that its standards be high, that it not tolerate the inept, much less outright malpractitioners, and that it work to serve the general good rather than the self-interest of its practitioners” (35).
In a few extreme cases, former employers were sued, having provided positive references for an employee despite concrete knowledge of past illicit or illegal behavior, and when the same behavior surfaced in the new workplace, the former employers were held accountable for not being forthcoming in their letters (8, 19).
In the rare cases in academia when someone follows up with the references after awarding or hiring someone who turns out to be a dud, the same story is often told—we were aware of the problem, but didn’t want to harm the person’s chances by bringing it up. What surfaces is something of a “buyer beware” mentality, as one writer calls it (27), with the onus on the recipient to deal with the problem. But many feel strongly that it should sometimes be the letter writer’s job to serve as a protective gatekeeper. As one professor at Florida State University put it: “I write letters . . . to advance the academy” (1). A respondent in one study summed up the sentiment about the need for gatekeeping in this way: “I know that our university program is represented by our graduates working in the field. So I do not wish to lesson our ethos, and neither do I want to cause problems for either employer or graduate by putting people in positions for which I have no evidence they would do well” (8). In medical fields, where letters of recommendation are critical tools for deciding between candidates, the letter writer might feel a stronger sense of responsibility to the medical profession than to the individual candidate. As stated in a journal article from Academic Emergency Medicine, for the letter writer “there is an implied duty to future students, colleagues, researchers, and patients who might come in contact with the applicant” (12).
In practice, much of this issue simply goes to writing a letter where praise and criticism are used fairly, or just saying no to writing a letter in the first place—issues discussed earlier—but there may be cases where you write from the position of protecting your school’s or profession’s reputation. I once wrote a negative letter for a student applying to grad school in my own program, but only after the student repeatedly refused to take no for an answer, after warning the student that my letter would not be wholly positive, and with certainty that this student was a terrible fit for the program. My loyalty to our program became the most important factor in deciding to write a negative letter. Often, gatekeeping is far less extreme, simply taking the form of passing on specific, credible concerns, but it usually involves some sort of mental wrestling match as you decide where your loyalties lie most. The more allegiance one feels to those receiving the evaluation, the more the writer might feel required to serve as gatekeeper.
Perhaps the most ethical principle is this: If you criticize with the intention of upholding the standards of the profession, you should make that motivation clear in the letter, and still refrain from criticizing irrelevantly or out of proportion.
Being Honest with the Student
As I write letters for my students, I believe in partnering with them on the process, beginning by asking them their opinions of their accomplishments and shortcomings. Usually, they don’t praise themselves enough (though sometimes they overdo it, and I must provide a more mature perspective), and they are highly capable of articulating their own weaknesses. Such a discussion fosters honesty between us, and I find I can thus write a more even-handed letter, sometimes including the student’s self-reflection and self-criticism as part of my text. Also, if I feel that I must write a limited or neutral letter for the student, I can admit that more easily if we’ve already had an open discussion about the process.
When writing letters of reference, one of the best ways you can smooth the process for yourself and foster honesty with the student is by developing a set of practices and policies, being up front about how you feel about writing letters and your personal protocol. Here are excerpts from two professor’s policies:
“If you have made no impression in my class, it is unlikely that you will get a good letter” (36).
“You need to have completed at least two of my courses. . . . You need to have earned a grade of B or better in all courses taken from me, received an A in one of my courses, and have at least a 3.0 GPA overall” (37).
“Ask me if I have the time to write the letter and if I would feel comfortable writing a supportive and positive recommendation letter for you. . . . I would rather decline writing you a recommendation letter than to write you a vague or irrelevant one” (38).
Note how these policies anticipate common problems in the process, set forth the professor’s ethic for how quality is defined, and build in the possibility of a negative letter or no letter at all. By developing such policies and being up front about them, these professors help students realize the weight given to recommendations, and underscore the boundaries of the professor’s protocol—which certainly might be stretched for the right student, one would assume, but not without the student recognizing the rules of the game.
Being Honest with the Letter Evaluator
Beyond the need to be honest about your assessment of a student’s abilities, there are other areas where authors should uphold an ethic of honesty, in particular in matters of authorship, criticism in your letter, and letter confidentiality.
In some cases, letters may have multiple authors or be co-signed, and if such matters are ambiguously presented or only gleaned through the letter’s signature line, letter evaluators are likely to be puzzled, and the letter’s credibility could come into question. At Harvard, teaching fellows who author a letter are invited to prepare a draft and share it with a course instructor, who then rewrites or simply co-signs it (38). In such cases, a carefully worded statement defining the chain of authorship is appropriate in the text of the letter, perhaps even right up front. I’ve also seen cases where a professor endorsed a letter written by a grad student by providing an imbedded or separate signed statement, noting that the letter had been read by the professor and met with his or her approval.
Some writers, wanting to make sure that evaluators recognize why criticism is being offered even amidst full endorsement of a student, include statements about their own ethic when writing recommendation letters. One study suggests “A written qualifying statement acknowledging the tendency of recommendation letters to overstate candidates’ desirable qualities, and stating the writer’s intention to avoid this trap by providing a more complete letter covering both strengths and weaknesses” (39). The intention here, of course, is to lend credibility and context to your honest and complete assessment of the student.
Finally, some writers have strong feelings about whether or not a student should be privy to a letter’s contents, and some studies recommend that you “state in the letter whether or not it was shared with the applicant” (31). The effect of such a statement can go in either direction, in that some feel a confidential letter shouldn’t be shared with the student under any circumstances, thinking that it destroys the impact of confidentiality; others feel that the student should be highly involved in the process of generating detail for the letter, and thus the issue of confidentiality for them is much more flexible. If you do make such a statement, again your concern should be with making it without equivocation. To demonstrate, note how there is a great difference in how these three statements might be interpreted:
“Per the usual protocol, I have not shared this letter nor its contents.”
“After a lot of thought, I decided that John might be really upset if he saw this letter, so I’m keeping it confidential.”
“After she signed the right of access waiver, I shared portions of this letter verbally with Janet, respectful of her maturity in handling my evaluation.”
If no such statement is made, a confidential, non-shared letter should be assumed.
Sharing the Letter with the Student
Through both serendipity and design, I’ve seen most of the recommendation letters written for me. In addition to the scenario I discuss in the Preface of this manual, several of my professors and my dean have given me what are commonly called “blind copies” of my letters either before or after sending them and after I had waived my access rights. I’ve talked to many others who have also seen at least one recommendation letter they’ve had written for them, either because they were involved in the process of helping to generate detail for it or because the writer had a policy of sharing even confidential letters.
In reading my own letters and considering the process carefully, I’ve developed a practice of sometimes sharing a letter or portions of it with students, but I typically do so after the decision based on the letter has been made, and when the decision was favorable to the student. Though never obliged to share letters with students who have waived access, many faculty develop some sort of access policy. If you choose to do so, the safest practice is to consider each case individually, based on the detail of your letter, your level of criticism, the status of the letter at the time of access, and the student’s maturity.
One of the best ways to study the art of recommendation letter writing is to look for advice specific to your field. Here are websites offering discipline-specific advice: