This series of articles is published in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin and on the ASLO website. The ASLO Professional Ethics Committee receives and deals with inquiries regarding ethical dilemmas and issues, and selected topics will be published here.
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At some point in our careers, all of us will either have to request or write a letter of recommendation, and this process involves several ethical issues. Let's begin by examining recommendation process from the requestor's point of view. Who should the requestor ask for a letter of recommendation, and should he or she wave the right to see the letter? A requestor should ask a person who writes well, knows him or her well enough to write a thorough letter (including more than just statistics such as grades), whose experience is relevant to the job or program to which the requestor is applying, and who has the highest possible position. This may not always be clear-cut. For example, a letter from a professor may carry more weight with evaluators than a letter from a teaching assistant, but a teaching assistant may have more direct contact with the student. The requestor should ask if the person feels comfortable and has the time to write a letter of recommendation. This allows the writer to gracefully bow out if he or she is genuinely busy or cannot write a favorable letter. If the writer agrees to write the letter, the requestor should assist by providing any information that may help the writer compose an informative and accurate letter.
The requestor is often faced with the choice to waive his or her right to view letters of recommendation. It is usually in the best interest of the requestor to do so, as writers are more likely to be forthright if they know their letters will be confidential, and evaluators weigh confidential letters more heavily than non-confidential letters. If a requestor doesn't want to waive the right to see the letter because he or she fears that the letter may be unfavorable, it is a sign that he or she should probably ask someone else for a recommendation.
Letters of recommendation are more complicated from a writer's point of view. A writer has ethical responsibilities to both the requestor and the evaluator (Schall 2006), and these responsibilities may sometimes be in conflict. On the one hand the writer should write a letter that is favorable overall, but on the other hand the writer should be honest, which may involve an unfavorable assessment. Larkin and Marco (2001) provide a list of seven "cardinal elements" of letters of recommendation:
A letter of recommendation should be: ) authentic (based on adequate first-hand knowledge of the candidate's skills); 2) honest (accurate; avoiding exaggeration or hyperbole); 3) explicit (avoidance of veiled omissions); 4) balanced (taking care to incorporate both strengths and weaknesses); 5) confidential (avoiding unnecessary or unanticipated disclosure); 6) of appropriate detail and length (content relevant to the institutional or individual requests); and 7) technically clear (avoidance of unnecessary abbreviations and jargon).
Schall (2006) advises avoiding highly negative comments, limiting criticism to one paragraph late in the letter, and phrasing criticism in an affirmative way (e.g. "Her teaching will improve once she gains a higher level of confidence.").
There are instances when a writer cannot recommend the requestor. For example, the writer may not know the requestor well or may not have anything favorable to say about the requestor. In such cases it is better to suggest that the requestor find another person to write a letter, rather than write a neutral or unsupportive letter (Schall 2006). The writer should not stand in the way of the requestor's goal of obtaining employment or admission to an academic program.
The recommendation process need not be painful for anyone involved. Following the above guidelines will help the requestor obtain a supportive letter of recommendation, as well as help the writer fulfill his or her ethical obligations to both the requestor and the evaluator.
Larkin, G.L. and C.A. Marco. 2001. Beyond authorship requirements: ethical considerations in writing letters of recommendation. Academic Emergency Medicine 8: 70-73.
Schall, J. 2006. The ethics of writing recommendation letters. Academe 92: 41-44.