Writing recommendations for former colleagues or students can be time consuming. But it sparks a certain amount of joy to put in the time to write a strong recommendation for someone when that person did good work or added value to a class or workplace. If the former student or colleague seems poised to continue their education or accept a job that will enable them to do the kind of work they seem qualified and determined to do, writing a strong, thoughtful recommendation may take time but it never feels like something I wouldn’t gladly do.
I’ve written before about how I find it inappropriate for recommenders to expect their colleagues or former students to write out the recommendation or reference letter and simply have the recommender sign it. No matter how much you might agree with the words the requester wrote, if you agree to write a recommendation, you should write it.
After agreeing to write a recommendation for someone many years ago, the person emailed me a packet of guidance on how to write a strong recommendation. It contained samples of letters written for others by others that had been successful. It also included a checklist of the types of things the receiving organization looked for in a candidate. That kind of guidance might have been overkill, but it didn’t step over any lines. I wrote the letter I would have written without all the guidance from the packet and the person’s application was successful.
But what happens when you’re asked to write a recommendation for someone you barely know or someone about whom you don’t have the highest opinion when it comes to their traits or ability to do the type of thing they are applying to do?
Being asked to write a recommendation letter for someone you barely know is not all that uncommon. A friend of a friend or the child of a friend or a friend of a connection on LinkedIn or a friend of someone you went to school with or some other distant connection may believe that a recommendation letter from you based on your background would make a strong impression. In these cases, if you agree to consider writing a recommendation letter, the right thing to do is to talk with the person or exchange emails and get to know as much about the person as you can that’s relative to what’s being applied for. It would be wrong to exaggerate how well you know the person. Focus instead on the person’s strengths based on what you do know of him, her or them.
If you don’t have the highest opinion of someone and can’t imagine writing a recommendation letter that truly reflects your sense of the person’s abilities, then the right thing is to decline the invitation. Lying to make someone else look good is wrong. Seizing any opportunity to make someone look bad doesn’t show a lot of character unless there is a real possibility that the person might put others in danger by getting a particular job.
Ultimately, while helping people gain an opportunity to do something meaningful or important for themselves can be a satisfying endeavor, if you don’t have time or would prefer not to, just say “no.”
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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