I give context to the ethical issues surrounding letters of recommendation by summarizing three breaches of ethics by students:
- A graduate student, suspecting an unflattering evaluation by an advisor based on another grad student’s tip, successfully hacks into the advisor’s computer to read a copy of the letter. The advisor is never aware of the student’s act, and the letter written on the student’s behalf does turn out to be negative.
- A graduate student, after being denied access to a confidential credentials file, breaks into the graduate office to Xerox the file. The university police become involved and the student is discovered, then kicked out of the program.
- An undergraduate collects the requested letter of reference in a signed, sealed envelope and becomes nervous about its potential contents. Before sending the letter off to the target graduate program, the student tears open the envelope and reads the favorable letter, then—relieved—sheepishly places the letter in a new sealed envelope with a forged signature across the back.
All these are true accounts that I was privy to in my 20 years of university teaching, and they underscore just how desperate some students become about letters of recommendation, and how some will even take foolish risks just to find out what we’ve written about them.
I have encountered many more typical scenarios, though, where both student and letter writer are uplifted by the process:
- A graduate student writes a letter of recommendation for the first time, and finds that a 30-minute interview with the student improves the detail of the letter and helps the student win a national scholarship.
- A faculty member writes a graduating senior a glowing letter that also includes one paragraph of criticism, and discusses the criticism with him as a way to point the student towards self-improvement.
- An alumna keeps her mentor informed once a year on her progress even six years after her graduation, and thus her mentor is able to write several informed, detailed reference letters for her as new opportunities arise.
These positive examples and others tell us that recommendation letters are not mere formalities involving “paying back favors” we once received from others, nor are they simply redundant paperwork we complete to help students advance—letters of recommendation offer us lessons about relationships (or their lack), growth, power and empowerment, professionalism, attitude, protocol, communication, ethos, and trust. To understand them fully, then, we must consider that the process and act of writing recommendation letters can have a powerful ethical component. This chapter is devoted to fleshing out the ethical issues related to recommendation letter writing, and offering proven strategies on how to address them.
The video and website below give solid broad overviews of issues to consider when you write recommendation letters: