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What should you do when someone asks you to write a letter of recommendation or to serve as a reference and for whatever reason you are not comfortable serving in this capacity and you are not sure how to respond to the request?
Since many, if not most of us, have either served as a reference for someone or asked someone to serve as a reference for us, I will consider this ethical dilemma from a couple of perspectives.
Requests from your colleagues
Often, individuals will call upon their current and former colleagues to serve as a reference when they are applying for a new position. Sometimes these individuals are employees who report to you, others are individuals in your work unit and still others are individuals with whom you only served on a committee or worked on a project.
For a number of reasons, you may not feel comfortable serving as a reference. Perhaps, the individual is not a high-achieving employee, or does not possess the skill set required of the new position. Or, possibly, you know something about their prospective employer or work unit, and you do not believe that the individual would be a good fit.
If you are not comfortable serving as a reference in such a situation, you are facing an ethical dilemma, “a situation in which two or more ‘right’ values are in conflict,” according to “Managing Business Ethics” by Linda Treviño and Katherine Nelson. It’s likely that, in this case, values such as honesty and integrity are in conflict with values such as kindness, compassion and loyalty.
You know that you do not feel comfortable providing a positive recommendation for the individual. But, you also want to seem helpful to your colleague, and maybe you regret having to say to the individual that you will not serve as a reference. The truth is, you are not doing a service to the individual (or your own reputation) by providing a mediocre recommendation, or worst yet, lying to the prospective employer about the individual. So, what should you do?
First, it is important to consider what the consequences are for you (and your organization), the individual seeking a reference and the prospective employer, if you agree to serve as a reference or if you choose to decline the request to serve as a reference. You should consider the decision that would produce the greatest good (the greatest benefits and least harms to the most people).
Second, you should consider what you would want someone to do for you, assuming you would want someone to be honest with you in a similar situation. Finally, you should consider what a person of integrity would do in this type of situation.
In the end, if you are uncomfortable serving as a reference, a person of integrity would have the difficult but honest conversation with the colleague to explain (as kindly as possible) that you feel you must decline because you are not the best person to serve as a reference (either because you can’t provide a positive one or because you don’t know the person well enough or some other reason).
You will be doing what is honest and doing it in a caring way. You will also be doing what is best for the most stakeholders.
Requests from students
In addition to requests from your colleagues, students will call upon their former instructors and academic and student organization advisers to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school or a letter of nomination for an award, as well as to serve as a reference for an internship or job opportunity.
Again, sometimes you do not know a student very well, or perhaps, he or she was not an outstanding performer in your class. You think that it would be best to decline the invitation to serve as a reference, but the student shares that you are the only instructor or adviser that he or she really knows. Again, you find yourself feeling uncomfortable with the situation and not exactly sure how to respond to the student’s request. It’s likely that values such as honesty and integrity are in conflict with values such as kindness and compassion. So, what should you do?
It is important, again, to consider the harms and benefits for accepting or declining the invitation to serve as a reference for the student. You might meet with the student to share with him or her, face-to-face, that you are not the best person to serve as a reference. You should explain, with compassion, your rationale for declining. You may also want to help the student to brainstorm other possibilities.
How to proceed as a reference
In the future, when someone asks you to serve as a reference, ask the person to send you supporting documents (i.e., resume, their application letter) and ask for time to consider the request. Ask for the details about the position or opportunity to which the individual is applying, and consider your own interactions with the individual and how your involvement would help or hinder in the application/nomination process.
Also, consider the amount of time you have to write a meaningful letter of recommendation. After all, your willingness to serve as a reference or to write a letter of recommendation signifies your honest endorsement of the individual and your own reputation is on the line.
Finally, it is not ethical to ask a student to write their own letter of recommendation for you to review and sign. If you don’t have time, don’t know enough about the person or don’t feel you can write your own letter for other reasons, it’s best to decline.
Jennifer L. Eury, Ph.D. is the honor and integrity director and instructor in management in the Penn State Smeal College of Business. She is responsible for the college’s honor and integrity initiatives, including marketing and communications, training and orientation, and policy execution and implementation. She also teaches courses in business ethics and leadership and change in organizations.