The process of writing recommendation letters has legal consequences and ramifications in a variety of fields
None of us in academia will be where we are now without the assistance of recommendation letters. As a result, most of us in turn feel obligated to write letters for students who need them.
We do so with the understanding that exaggeration of the content of such letters is standard practise. However, we are not obliged to write letters merely because they are requested of us.
Without going into too much detail, the process of writing recommendation letters has legal consequences and ramifications in a variety of fields. It is important to note, that if a pushy student or colleague attempts to dominate the process, the main decision is yours to make.
This includes whether or not to write the letter, the dual responsibilities to the student and the letter evaluators, and whether or not to show the letter to the student.
I once prepared a letter for a student who applied to graduate school under my own school programme, but only after the student continuously refused to accept no for an answer. The decisive aspect in my choice to write a negative remark is my loyalty to our programme.
Gatekeeping is always far less serious than transmitting clear, legitimate queries, but it always involves some sort of a mental boxing fight while you make up your allegiance most.
The deeper one’s relationship with people receiving the assessment, the more compelled the writer will feel to serve as gatekeeper. Perhaps the most ethical principle is this: If you criticise with the purpose of elevating the profession’s expectations, you should make that goal clear in the message while also refraining from criticising in an irrelevant or overblown manner.
For me, the ideal technique for producing recommendation letters is:
“Ask me if it’s time for me to write the letter and if I would be happy to write a positive letter to encourage you. I’d rather not write a letter of recommendation rather than a vague one.”
The need to bow out
Sometimes, the most responsible and kind thing we can do for a classmate or co-worker is to decline to write a letter of reference. Most professors tend to soften the student’s opposition to this idea by implying that they are too distracted, that they don’t know what to say, that someone else may have sent a more constructive message, or that they simply don’t know anything about the student.
Savvy students will recognise those responses as faculty code for a “NO,” but the more observant will provide you with a resume and a meeting or an e-mail to aid you in creating positive details for a letter (a few have won me over by doing so).
Furthermore, the most obnoxious and histrionic kids may feel that you are the best recommender they have and that your letter is critical to their survival. I once listed my colleague Prof X in my recommenders list during my application for an associate professor position in a private university in Egypt.
He agreed and welcomed this. We had a very good relationship, and we had a strong brotherhood bond.
Unfortunately, I was rejected from the job, and it turned out after few months he was hired for the same position in the same university. I was shocked and talked to him, but he said irrelevant things.
My best guess was he presented himself as a possible substitute for me and he betrayed me and hijacked the position for himself. This was a delicate ethical issue with a deep conflict of interest.
Emotional balance and insight
So the question is what will you do if you are in the shoes of Prof X? If he had wanted the position, he could have declined to give me the recommendation letter to avoid losing me as a loyal colleague and a collaborator. He could then have applied for the same position and we would have had a fair game with best candidate winning. However, he played dirty and hit under the belt.
I believe that having a co-worker mate has been shown to improve interaction and efficiency. But what if you and a collaborator/colleague are both up for a promotion – or in some other competitive situation in which one of you stands to “win” while the other stands to “lose”?
First and foremost, emotional balance and insight are important. Remind yourself that this is only one of the promotions/academic positions that will come your way throughout your career. Perspective would also assist you in realising that your relationship is likely more valuable than the promotion/position.
Second, maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. In this case, our partnership has always been mutually beneficial rather than competitive. And we both had valid reasons for pursuing this job. Prof X introduced himself to the boss instead of me, and he was hired.
I was disappointed. Although I was delighted for him, my self-esteem had suffered as a result. My closest co-worker was now in a position that I desired, which meant a new awkwardness between the two of us that eventually affected our ability to function together.
For me, I threw this behind and moved forward simply because I believe that God chooses the best for us and our decree in life was written before our birth. I just relax and try to enjoy my life.
Ideal recommendation letter
Anyone participating in the recommendation process does not have to suffer through it. Following the ethical criteria will assist the requestor in obtaining a favourable letter of recommendation, as well as assist the writer of the letter in fulfilling his or her ethical commitments to both the requestor and the evaluator.
A recommendation letter should be: 1) authentic (based on enough first-hand knowledge of the candidate’s talents); 2) genuine (exact; avoid distortion or exaggeration); and 3) brief. (transparent with no omissions); 4) fair (taking into account all strengths and weaknesses); 5) discrete (avoiding unwanted or unexpected exposure); and 6) have adequate information and duration (material tailored to administrative or individual needs); and 7) theoretically simple (avoidance of unnecessary abbreviations and jargon).
Medical referral letter
Similarly, let’s look at a medical referral letter which involves the transfer of a patient’s care from one physician or clinician to another in the course of medical practice. It entails one physician realising that a patient under his/her care requires certain knowledge or talents that another physician possesses.
An appropriate referral is an essential component of comprehensive quality health care management and should be based on a patient’s specific requirements. It is considered that the referring physician has the necessary diagnostic and therapeutic abilities and expertise to determine whether a referral is warranted.
The question here is whether a true medical recommendation from one medical staff to another constitutes a criminal or unethical behaviour? When is it immoral to recommend a patient to another physician and what factors influence whether a recommendation is ethical or unethical?
It is anticipated that a practising physician understands his/her limitations and, as a result, knows when to seek support and aid in the care of his/her patients.
This is especially true when a physician realises that such individuals rely on him/her to make the right judgments about their health issues. Also, accepting money for a patient referral is unlawful in general, and finally, no doctor should intentionally write bad referral.
In closing, I prefer to name this particular behaviour of Prof X as “Ethical Cheating” and this raises a significant dilemma in academia: Is it possible to be both ethical and cheat? — The Health
Dr Wael MY Mohamed is with the Department of Basic Medical Science, Kulliyyah of Medicine, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).