Student recommendations redux– more conversation about this!

Key Insight: My last column on writing letters of recommendation (LOR) for students has generated more ideas, experiences and potential ethical issues! Here, I consider LOR requests from long-graduated students who contact you (sometimes out of the blue); the online recommendation phenomenon, such as with LinkedIn, that utilizes ‘blanket’ or generalized LORs; potential legal issues about what we say in LORs with respect to privacy laws, including what might change for us writers when students can examine our letters before we send them; and finally, an ethical issue raised by different cultural interpretations of what’s OK. Let’s go!

We’ve already covered a variety of ethical angles to LORs, such as when the requesting student was a poor performer, or was an average performer. I also talked about really aggravating students who request LORs. My alert advisory team and other readers have added some other aspects of LORs that we need to consider as well, and I add to my list of handy pseudonyms in this column.

1. The long-ago graduated student finds you again, requesting a LOR

As SNSs make it possible to find people long gone in the ‘real world,’ a former student “Sydney” contacted me for a LOR even though she had graduated 13 years ago and I had not kept in touch with her. Although I remembered her, I did not remember at all any of her performance in my classes. Should I write a letter for her? The articles linked in my prior column, as well as some newer advice I accessed for this one, seem appropriate here. If I cannot speak to particular performance criteria and talents the student has now, it becomes my responsibility to decline writing the letter. Although I might be pushing some employment opportunity out of reach for our Sydneys of the world, these former students should have been cultivating more current relationships with those who could speak to their abilities credibly and completely. This student did not seem surprised when I declined; on my more suspicious days I wonder if her performance since graduation had simply been so weak that she was reaching for any available voice to assist her.

2. A student wants an electronic ‘blanket’ or generalized recommendation, such as those found in LinkedIn

“Blake” asked me for an electronically-housed recommendation in the SNS LinkedIn. While he was a very strong performer, his request was for a general or blanket LOR highlighting more global skills such as ability to work in a group, and writing skills, rather than for a particular job position. How useful are these types of recommendation? As I trolled for information, I hit upon what seemed to be a particularly helpful evaluation from Susan Adams at Forbes.

Similar to old-school LORs, the more specific, realistic, and skills-based the recommendation the better. Adams talks about too-flowery language (not good), overkill at 50 recommendations (did your mother ask all her friends to write one??) and vague or indifferent language (also not good). She also indicates that such recommendations can indeed be helpful, but employers are not at the point of candidates having an e-LOR or losing out completely. So, the ethical frame remains ultimately the same: if you can fairly, accurately, and specifically point to skills that many employers might like, such as time management or conflict resolution, then e-LORs appear to be at least neutral. On the other hand, if you cannot positively assess such transferable kinds of skills, it is probably best to decline. Although LinkedIn is subscriber-based, as an internet option it is out there, with the potential for many, many people to see the letter you write.  I did write a LinkedIn recommendation for Blake, and made very specific references to his work skills. It was easy, because he was terrific as a student and I had just finished the semester with him so it was fresh. But I did make clear that I was willing to write the recommendation specifically about those skills and he was appreciative of that. The end of the story is that he did get the job he wanted, and the LinkedIn recommendation played a positive role.

3. Dicey legal issues with LORs, particularly FERPA

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, was designed to protect student educational performance information and allow students themselves to decide who gets that information. FERPA has been interpreted differently around the country, but with respect to LORs the legal implications are clear. Students have a right to see what you write in your letter unless they explicitly waive that right, something most professional school admissions offices, like law school, require. Requiring students to waive their FERPA rights ostensibly allows you and I as recommenders to be more frank with admissions folks about the student’s abilities. As importantly, more than one of my advisory committee members for the ETHICIST indicated that keeping our letter content confidential does not allow the student to hunt down letter writers, looking for the people who “kept me out” of the desired program.  As one advisory member indicated, she generally steers away from LORs if the student was only a moderate performer, had some behavioral issue that might give pause (like being disruptive or even hostile in the classroom), and does not waive FERPA rights to examine the letter. Being blamed for the lack of invitation to join a program does happen, so many professors themselves require the FERPA waiver. Investigating this informally, I have learned of colleagues who will only write a LOR, for any program or job, if students agree to waive their FERPA rights to examine it.

 

Personally, I think I only did a couple of LORs for law school in the last ten years but I have done a million of them for MBA programs. What has worked for me is having very straightforward conversations with students about their abilities and potential success in the graduate programs they are considering, using Whetten and Cameron’s eight principles of supportive communication (see this for an application between department chairs and junior faculty ) By doing so the results have seemed binary to me: either the student is very qualified, and I write a LOR that I have no problem with them seeing, or, the student’s performance does not merit my LOR and I decline it altogether. Now, a key factor may be that I seem to get requests from students with whom I have crafted a solid relationship, while those with whom I have not do not ask me. While I still think my process could work, I have not been exposed to the retributive and blaming students my colleagues have. Ethically, all resources I have tapped appear to be consistent on the requirement of evidence-based commentary, meaning, discuss only those performance aspects for which you have direct experience and evidence. The slideshow above includes an interesting scenario in which a moderately-performing student comes out and asks a recommender to over-state qualifications. Clearly, this spells trouble.

 

While it seems kind of sad to me that the LOR process has become such a potential gatekeeper that real contention and legal trouble have arisen, I understand that pressures to succeed and get the next credential can over-ride seemingly sane people sometimes. We have to protect ourselves while serving students with this important source of information, and the line is not black and white.

4. How about a cultural interpretive difference?

Another of my advisory board members, a non-U.S. person, sent this scenario, which I will paraphrase and disguise a bit:

 

“John” teaches quite large class sections of over 100 students each, so he does not really get to know his students all that closely and thus receives few LOR requests. One international student asked for a LOR, a request John declined because he could not reasonably speak to the student’s performance in the criteria the organization requested. Indeed, the student’s request was the first time John had actually met this student and based on the few assignments the student had turned in, she was a below-average performer. The student, when John indicated he could not do the LOR with any integrity, indicated that her father would pay John for the LOR, and seemed confused when John refused yet again.

 

Perhaps to a North American worldview, this is a no brainer “Sorry, can’t help you” situation. But John reports this student seemed genuinely confused by his refusal to help, and the newest issue of Harvard Business Review contains a brief article (by Currell & Bradley) detailing compelling factors leading to bribery in emerging markets, including stifling bureaucracies and MNCs’ own time pressures for market penetration. Students raised in environments where ‘grease money’ does not carry the same negative weight as it does in Western countries have a right to know why we won’t help them, in clear but not denigrating discussions. John was not at all equivocal, but increasing global reach and diverse classrooms will guarantee we will see more of these kinds of requests, and concurrent reactions.

Thanks to all who have commented so far, and I welcome more conversation about this lively topic!

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.