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The Ethics of Writing Letters of Recommendation

Should You Write that Letter of Recommendation for a Colleague or Friend?

The other day I received an e-mail from a reader who asked for guidance in determining whether to write a letter of recommendation for a co-worker who had applied for a promotion within the organization. The ethical dilemma centered on two areas: (1) the writer was listed as a source for a recommendation letter even though she was not asked in advance to do so and (2) the writer had reservations about the requester's ability to carry out the duties associated with the new position. The conflict was even greater because there the requester was a friend. Here is my answer.

My motto is honesty is always the best policy, otherwise what you say may come back to haunt you later on. What if you give a positive recommendation when you don't feel that way and he does something wrong down the road. Others may start to look at you with suspicion and question your judgment. At a minimum you should admit that the employee did not seek your agreement before using you as a reference.

Your primary obligation is to yourself -- to be honest, have integrity, and act responsibly. Second, is to your employer who trusts you to do the right thing for the company and act in its best interests. You should never allow loyalty to another person cloud your good judgment. Otherwise you may wind up doing things that are dishonest in the name of loyalty. Honesty requires full disclosure -- to not lie and to fully inform others with an ethical right to know specific information.

Requested letters of recommendation are a common problem for me as a college professor. Often a student will come to my office and request such a letter to support the application for a job in the business world. My decision whether to write such a letter rests on four considerations: (1) How long have I known the student?; (2) What was the level of academic performance of the student in my class(es)?;  Ltrs of rec (3) Does the student have the necessary skills to be successful in a career in the business world?; and (4) What, if any, observations have I formed about personal responsibility and other character traits of the student?

The first two considerations speak for themselves and are based on actual observations. It is somewhat more difficult to judge communication skills. I always include a written assignment in my course requirements to judge writing skills. The number one complaint I hear from potential and actual employers is the inability to write a coherent and well organized memorandum, an essential quality for success in the workplace. I also assign a group project where oral communication skills can be evaluated. I specifically tell students not to use expressions such "you know" and "like" in their speech. These are all too often interlopers that take away from the flow of a presentation and are unprofessional. I look for eye contact, speech tone, a sense of humor, and direct response to the case questions.

The most difficult evaluation to make about one's ability to be successful in the workplace is character assessment. I can judge a student's ability to exercise due care in formulating answers and making presentations as well as the ability to meet deadlines. To some extent personal responsibility can be judged by meeting deadlines and, if I have personal contact with a student about his or her performance, I assess whether the student accepts critical comments and judgments and takes responsibility for his or her performance. Honesty can be judged as well based on these criteria. A student's work as a group member can be judged by asking other students in the group whether the student in question lived up to his or her responsibilities as a member of the group and the ability to interact with other group members. Success in the workplace is based in part on how an individual performs as a member of a team assigned a specific work project. The classroom should be used as a training ground to enhance student skills.

In closing, I ask myself whether I would be proud to defend my letter of recommendation should the prospective employer contact me and ask questions about the candidate. If I feel uncomfortable doing so, then I respectfully decline to write the letter. The last thing I want is to feel regretful for doing something that I should have known might come back to haunt me later on.

If you have any questions on this or any other workplace matter, please feel free to use the confidential process and submit a querie letter. I provide advice the same or next day. Finally, employees should remember that they build a reputation from the first day on the job and the respect shown to them by their supervisor and employer is dictated by their ethical actions and behavior.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 9, 2011

Cartoon reproduced with permission of Cartoon Stock