Sunday, September 01, 2019
Recommenders should know what it is they are recommending
Lately, it seems that a supervisor (let's call her Betsy), who runs a small division of a large company, has been fielding requests from contract workers for recommendations. Since these contract workers only work part time, Betsy can only really confirm the work they've done for her company. While the part-time employees often send her a resume or a list of their outside accomplishments when they send a request for a recommendation, Betsy doesn't believe it's her job to check on the factual accuracy of the details they share with her.
The requests, however, often ask for Betsy to comment more widely on the workers' capabilities than what they specifically do for her company. The recommendations are often for other opportunities that require more skills and background than Betsy's company requires of its independent contractors.
"They're good workers," Betsy writes. "Otherwise, we wouldn't continue to use them."
But Betsy is uncomfortable commenting on things she really can't confirm and on informing those requesting recommendations that she doesn't feel comfortable recommending them. She does not want to send them the message that neither she nor her company doesn't appreciate the good work they do. "What's the best way to respond to them?" she asks.
Betsy is correct that it is not her job nor should it be her responsibility to do the legwork required to confirm what her independent contractors tell her they've done in jobs unrelated to her company. Even if they provide her with a copy of a certification or a license, if it's for work they haven't done for her company, she shouldn't be expected to comment on its quality.
There is, however, a flaw in Betsy's worrying. Believing that her only options are simply to say yes or no when approached about writing a recommendation misses the fact that she has another, more appropriate response to make.
If an independent contractor asks for a recommendation specifically about the work he or she does for Betsy's company, obviously, she can simply agree to write the recommendation. If the request goes beyond the scope of work he or she has done for the company, the right thing for Betsy to do is to respond by letting the requester know that she'd be glad to comment upon the work about which she's knowledgeable in her recommendation, but that she is not comfortable commenting upon any areas about which she has no firsthand knowledge. Such a response is both reasonable and thoughtful.
It is always reasonable and appropriate for anyone asked for a recommendation to ask the requester questions or to be clear on what type of recommendation he or she feels competent to give. It's also always an option to simply say no to a request, if time or knowledge makes it impossible to write.
Nevertheless, some recommenders might agree to write such a recommendation, which is unfortunate since it likely sends a message to prospective employers, which is not entirely honest. The right thing for any of Betsy's independent contractors to do is to refrain from asking Betsy for recommendations that put her in such a conundrum. This holds true for anyone asking anyone for a recommendation for anything. Expecting someone to comment without direct knowledge is unfair to the recommender.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglinDo you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.