Student recommendations: to give, or not to give, that is the question!

Key Insight: Although writing letters of recommendation may be a common task, there is much more to these letters than meets the eye! This column explores ethical aspects of letters of recommendation and invites your comments about your experiences.

Hello my fellow Academy travelers! I hope your meeting in Boston was an energizing as mine was. What’s not to love about 10,000 fellow management folks running around? I have made a cross-country move and am now working at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, MN, as the Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Leadership & Ethics. A mouthful of a title, but this is a really exciting change for me and my new email address is lunddean@gustavus.edu. I hope to hear from you!

My last column focused on the ethics of student—instructor social networking, and when it might be appropriate to friend students in that very gray area of relationships that social network sites (SNS) provide. That subject was prompted in part by the end of the semester coming, and my receiving a spate of “friend” requests from students.

Another touchstone experience at the end of any semester is the rash of requests for recommendation letters. Like many of you, I get lots of requests each term to craft letters of recommendation (LOR) for students moving on in any variety of ways, particularly when I teach seniors or MBA students. Some are easy—my student “Shawn” who earned high score in a very competitive MBA course and was one of those students who, when he spoke in class, earned his peers’ clear admiration. Some are… not so much. “George” was a better-than-average performer, but was so annoying and arrogant that his request for a LOR gave me great pause. Or, consider “Tina,” whose performance was wholly unremarkable—not terrific, but not terrible either. Does she get a letter, or, do I reserve those for the Shawns of the world?

Writing LORs has a significant ethical angle in our increasingly competitive world that students enter. A solidly crafted LOR can be the deciding factor for a student gaining an opportunity s/he would otherwise not have had and I think we must consider our gatekeeper role. Whenever I get a request for a LOR, they tend to fall in a few categories. Let’s go through those and tease out the ethical issues.

 

  • The student requesting the LOR was a poor classroom performer

 

I don’t want to talk about the no-brainer, high performer “Shawn” cases here. When the requesting student simply did not have the level of performance I would agree merits my recommendation, I have to stop and consider what to do.  I could agree, fudge a letter for him or her, and avoid the potential conflict—caveat emptor, right? Although it may be tempting, particularly for a persistent student and for expedience, passing along inaccurate or incomplete information about a student’s performance is simply the wrong thing to do. And, others concur that we owe students an honest conversation about why we cannot write a positive letter for them. In requesting a LOR, they are in effect indicating they think they can do the work required of a new and more rigorous role. I agree with Verba (author of linked article above) that when I have any reservation about a LOR, I have a sometimes difficult conversation with the student, offering him or her evidence-based feedback that may conflict with their very idea of who they are.

 

It’s not easy, and I wish sometimes such discussions were formulaic in what to say. I have had a couple of different reactions from students. I would say most know their own performance issues and can sheepishly admit they are not academic rock stars. Others, though, seem to not have an accurate understanding of their performance and exhibit occasionally bullet-proof blind spots about it. All I can do is be frank without being nasty, and offer evidence as to why I am saying no. I have never had a student who, after this conversation, suggested that I write the LOR anyway—a patently unethical suggestion. If you have, please comment to this blog with your story—what did you do?

 

Schall says, “Sometimes, the kindest, most responsible thing we can do for a student is to refuse to write a letter of reference….The pushiest students might insist that you really are the best recommender they’ve got, and that your letter is critical to their very existence.” When I have had these instances, my BS-meter goes off, and my conversation with that student is even more straightforward.

 

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

 

Occasionally I get requests to comment on more holistic aspects of a student’s performance, such as personal integrity or patriotism. Students going to work for the federal government with security clearances, or in certain financial fields, need questions like this answered. I have found this one not as difficult to handle. If a student asks me for a letter, and I can’t make a judgment, I have some options. I can decline, correctly citing a lack of knowledge. I can decline that section of an evaluation, citing a lack of direct experience. I can try to find out by talking with the student and filling in the gaps. Or, I can ask others for their experiences with and recommendations about that student, as long as I say where I got the information in my letter. Scholars agree that the unethical thing to do is guess, or affirm simply because we have not seen or heard information that would contradict those criteria. Declining to answer does not doom the student’s chances, in my experience, but makes the other aspects of the recommendation more credible.

 

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

 

It’s sure hard to write glowing things about personality-challenged students. From an ethics perspective, though, it has to come back to performance. Unless whatever is annoying you will have a demonstrable negative effect on the student’s future prospects, the LOR should proceed with the usual inclusions and evidence. Recalling “George” from the opening of this blog—what happened? Because the program to which he was applying was clearly in his skill set, I did the letter. Maybe it was also part of my ultimate decision to do it when I realized George’s field (and that particular employer) was full of people just like him! I wrote the letter, carefully documenting how his skills matched the program’s needs, and decided to let his ubiquitous “Hey dude!” greetings speak their own volumes.

 

  • The student had average, or unremarkable performance

 

These seem to be increasing in frequency due to the persistently challenging economy and students’ need for any competitive advantage or differentiating factor. When I get a request from a “non-Shawn” or, a student whose performance does not make writing a LOR obvious for me, I consider my gatekeeper role. An especially helpful process I use comes from Hosmer’s The Ethics of Management and other work of his, in the form of The Four Questions. If I do the LOR,

 

  • 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?

 

The first two questions are outcomes-based, while the last two are duty-based, so it’s a terrific quick-and-dirty but structured evaluation process that helps me think about important aspects of a decision. Although it’s too long a calculus to really record here, let’s briefly consider each aspect.

 

If I write the LOR, the average performer “Tina” may get a position that taps into her passions, and her performance may be rejuvenated. It could be, literally, a life-altering opportunity, such as the internship experience one of my Tinas got that turned into a professional position in lieu of the secretarial one she otherwise would have had to take. With respect to the harms question, I have often considered the performance appraisal process to be my ally. If I write Tina a letter and her moderate performance follows her into the workplace, she will most likely be culled out on her own [lack of] merits. If I don’t write the LOR, the harms may be more widespread and longer-term in her not getting her foot in the door.

 

The duties questions seem more interesting to me here. I absolutely think I owe the LOR reader an honest evaluation of a student’s performance, so I am careful to not embellish or use broadly-based language. A “Shawn”-like comment might be, “Shawn’s group process skills are well-developed and he has earned the respect of her peers” while a “Tina”-like comment might be, “Tina’s peers appreciated her promptness to group meetings” when I have peer evaluation evidence that this particular aspect of her performance was solid. So, my evaluations are more narrow and focused. I think I owe Tina my effort to craft a letter that takes into account some skills, because I have come to realize that for under-the-radar performers, it may be one of the few times a professor has ever said anything affirming about them. What do others owe Tina, or me? Perhaps an honest shot at the job for Tina, but that is true for many job candidates. And, I think the job market over the last 5-7 years has been very short on duty fulfillment, so I am more concerned about how my interaction with Tina affects her prospects as well as my own sense of honest evaluation.

 

For students you agree to recommend, there are a variety of forms for LORs but they should include at least the following:

 

  • An honest vetting of the student’s abilities, past performance, and projected capabilities within expected new roles

 

Verba notes that, “If, after doing a careful review of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, you cannot write a supportive letter, it is important to have a candid discussion with the student.” Evidence used in the evaluation should be clear to the reader, and when projecting new responsibilities, tapping colleagues in those fields is most welcome. For example, a law school LOR should include why that student might be successful in a J.D. program, and consulting with law school colleagues can add valuable weight to a candidate’s evaluation. If you’ve considered the student’s abilities and you don’t believe you can write a positively supportive LOR, it is time to talk to the student.

 

  • Explanations of any perceived weaknesses in the student’s record.

 

Evaluators will want to know why, for example, an otherwise outstanding academic record included very poor grades for a particular time period. With the student’s permission, it is OK to disclose family illnesses, or other conditions that resulted in red-flag performance issues. I had a student who was a domestic violence victim whose performance, quite understandably, tanked for an entire spring semester. We got her assistance through a local agency, she repeated most of the courses after getting out of that situation, and she asked me to help her get into a non-local MBA program. It was an easy letter to write based on her holistic performance, and we collaborated on language explaining her prior household situation. Even if a performance issue is not glaring, it is important to offer critique of any possible holes in the student’s record and how the student will overcome them. For example, a student’s problems with sentence structure and mechanics will be ameliorated by her use of a professional copyeditor at her own expense.

 

  • Explanation of your relationship with the student—how do you know what you know?

 

Student contact can come through myriad forms and the reader should understand how you’ve been able to evaluate the student’s performance. Were you the instructor, or the faculty advisor? Mentor for a client consulting project? Offering context helps the reader understand your role and adds credibility to the student’s overall evaluation.

 

Letters of recommendation are a big deal—they can be a make-or-break factor for students gaining access to a prestigious graduate program, or a coveted promotion, or funding for a grant proposal. I cannot help but think about that high-profile dispute from 2003 where a Texas Tech student sued his biology teacher, Professor Michael Dini, for refusing to write a letter on the student’s behalf. The professor had, on his web site, a set of guidelines  under which he would write such letters; one included an acceptance of evolution as a basic biological underpinning. The student refused to affirm evolution on religious grounds, dropped out of Tech, and sued the instructor.

 

The Texas Tech case was complicated, and fortunately, most LOR situations do not invite litigation. In the majority of cases, these letters are a delight to write: affirming of the student’s hard work and providing a connection within that important liminal space between undergraduate to graduate, or mid-level manager to executive ranks. But they are important enough to warrant our attention about who deserves one, and who does not. Joe Schall wrote about the reciprocal nature of letters of recommendation: “None of us got where we are professionally without the help of recommendation letters written on our behalf. Most of us therefore feel obliged to write letters for students whenever they ask.” While I agree with his first assertion, it’s the “whenever they ask” part that deserves our ethical consideration, as Schall well notes later on in his essay.

 

Based on feedback we Ethicist columnists have received, I am including some potential discussion questions for faculty Brown Bags or graduate student discussion groups.

 

  1. Tell of a time when a student asked you for a LOR and you hesitated. Why were you hesitant? What was going on? What ultimately did you do, and why?
  2. When would it be OK to refuse to write a LOR even if the student is a strong performer?
  3. Share effective verbiage from your own letters you’ve written, or effective phrasing of student performance aspects you’ve evaluated.
  4. What happened when a student asked you to include information about him or her that was simply not true, but would have really helped their chances?
  5. Does anything change about your letters when students have a chance to see it before you send it?

 

Author: Kathy Lund Dean

I have been a member of the Academy for 15 years, and served in several governance roles including the Chair track for MSR. At Gustavus Adolphus College I hold the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair in Leadership & Ethics. My family and I moved to St. Peter after 10 years in Pocatello, Idaho at Idaho State University.

1 thought on “Student recommendations: to give, or not to give, that is the question!”

  1. The Ethicist column in the New York Times this week (Sunday May 19, 2013) wrote about the ethics of writing a negative recommendation letter, and it reminded of Kathy’s post on AOM’s The Ethicist. The piece by Chuck Klosterman is available here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/does-the-postal-service-owe-me-money.html?ref=theethicist&_r=0

    and I reproduce the text below. I’ll follow up by sending him this link to Kathy’s post too.

    In general, I agree with both Kathy and the NYT author. If you can’t say something nice in a letter of reference (LOR), better to decline to write the letter.

    ————————-

    POST PARTICULAR BY CHUCK KLOSTERMAN (NYTIMES SUNDAY MAGAZINE, MAY 19, 2013, PAGE 16)

    LETTER OF CONDEMNATION

    It is common practice to decline to give colleagues and students a reference if one has nothing positive to say about them. But might it sometimes be more ethical to provide a negative reference? When someone looks good on paper but is less competent in real life, is it ethical to act against someone to ensure that the work goes to someone who is a better fit? NAME WITHHELD, PORTLAND, ORE.

    Yes — but only in circumstances that occur so rarely they almost never happen. In general, the literal content of a recommendation matters much less than its existence; declining to speak or write on someone’s behalf is the equivalent of saying, “I don’t believe this person is particularly talented” or “I don’t know enough about this candidate to endorse him or her.” Within this context, choosing not to act is acting enough. There’s no ethical obligation to undercut people.

    There are only a handful of situations in which actively writing a negative recommendation would be justified, and those scenarios need to fulfill basic criteria. First of all, the candidate would have to pose a tangible danger to the institution. It’s not enough to merely assume that someone else might be “a better fit.” It needs to be a circumstance in which your inaction could lead to real harm. Second, you’d need to be in a position where you possess critical, objective knowledge about the applicant that a third party could not ascertain. If someone is dangerous — and you are in the unique position of knowing this — you’re obligated to intercede. But don’t undermine someone based on the premise that you subjectively feel they’re undeserving; if this is how you feel, concentrate your efforts on advocating for those you can reasonably support.

    E-mail queries to ethicist@nytimes.com, or send them to the Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018, and include a daytime phone number.

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