Sunday, April 24, 2011

When it comes to recommendations, write on

A reader poses what he identifies as a real "ethics puzzler." His former partner's son -- his self-identified "de factor former stepson" -- is finishing up his undergraduate degree and is now applying to graduate school.

In the past, even after the relationship with his mother had ended, the former stepson had occasionally asked his former stepfather to write reference letters for him for various academic or service programs. "He got into all of them," his stepfather writes. The stepson would always ask him to write the letters not from the perspective of a parent but as "someone who had assisted in homes schooling him and had been a family friend nearly all his life."

Because his stepfather is a college professor, his stepson figured his academic credentials would lend credibility to the letters he wrote.

"But I always told him that I would preface any letter with a full transparency statement indicating that I had been in effect his stepfather for a period of time."

The relationship with his former stepson's mother is now almost 15 years behind him. Still, he and his former stepson "speak pretty regularly, rendezvous when convenient, and in a pinch, with good news or bad, still connect as family."

Now that the former stepson is applying to graduate school, he still wants to help, but he wonders if at this higher level of education his relationship with him might be "too close."

"On the other hand," he writes, "I know him better than almost anybody, and I think I actually can evaluate his potential quite clearly.

"What do you think?" he asks.

It is unusual for a parent to write a recommendation letter for his child. Even when they do, they might not be considered as strongly as those that come from teachers or others outside of family. Clearly, a family member has an inherent bias and is unlikely to write anything but a letter teetering on being a panegyric for the candidate.

But there's nothing unethical about a parent writing a letter if he chooses to do so, as long as he does precisely as my reader has done in the past, and identifies his relationship to the candidate clearly from the outset of the letter.

Does it make any difference now that the former stepson is applying to graduate school? No. If his former stepfather feels that he can shed light on his academic abilities as well as his character in a way that no one else can and that he feels is important for the prospective graduate school to know, the right thing is for him to write that letter with as much transparency and conviction as he has done in the past.

From a practical standpoint, many graduate schools are likely to place more weight on recommendations that come from those who are not family members or former family members. But that doesn't mean they won't look at all of the candidate's submitted material as part of what paints an overall picture of the candidate's character and potential.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

It seems people bend over backwards to make problems for themselves. In a relationship with a parent, it makes no difference if this is a blood relative or a step relative - the person doing the recommendation should have no compunction about recommending his son, be he blood or step, now or in the past. Of course, the father, whatever his title, should fully describe his own credentials when making such a recommendation.

WizeMaxey said...

It makes absolutely no difference. Merit admissions went out the window long ago. The more elite the institution of "higher" learning, the less important academic qualifications become. Colleges are bending over backwards to consider race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, internationalism, legacies, size of family donation, fame and influence of family, political connections, admission criteria as they strive for the ever so important bragging rights to the various forms of "diversity." So any recommendation letter, regardless of the connection and ties to the applicant,is just as valid as one's race, sexual preference, or skin color.

No applicant will ask for letter of recommendation that is liable to be unfavorable, so the relationship to the author is irrelevant for this and all of the above reasons.

I had to laugh that this is even a topic of ethical discussion. Before we discuss applicant ethics, the colleges need to return to moral and ethical behavior first.