How do I recommend someone I have reservations about?
January 6, 2009 9:09 AM   Subscribe

How do I write a letter of reference for someone I previously supervised and am ambivalent about?

A couple of years ago, I was in a supervisory position over a few people in a yearlong community-service program engaged in rather heavy-duty work. One of the people in my group (we'll call E) had a lot of problems, being often defiant, sometimes irresponsible, and an occasional headache. At the same time, E really took to the work when the going got tough and helped me out when I needed it. On balance: not a bad person.

Now, E is applying for an undergraduate program in social services and has recently asked me for a letter of recommendation. I said yes, partly because it was Christmastime and I was feeling magnanimous and partly because E was 18 when we worked together and I recognize that a lot of people just out of high school still have a lot of growing up to do...which I think E is doing. And an undergraduate program is not so high-stakes that I'd feel ethically disingenuous helping E get in; I'd previously refused to give a work reference for another member of the group who I felt truly didn't deserve one, so I didn't take the decision lightly.

Now I'm feeling uncertain. I can't back out (that would be shitty) and I don't want to write a tepid letter (that would be passive-aggressive and shitty), not to mention that E has asked me to send it direct to E's house...which I guess ups that chances that E will read it before sending it in.

So I guess my question is, how do I focus on the positive in order to crank this thing out?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You say that E has a lot of good qualities, but also some bad ones. Write the letter you want to write, then go back and take out all the lukewarm and coded and backhanded stuff. This second step might be easier if you pretend that the letter is not for E, but for you, or your spouse or child or something.
posted by box at 9:27 AM on January 6, 2009

Since you've already agreed to serve as a reference, it seems you have two choices: 1) go back to E and say you're having trouble listing their good qualities without being honest about the challenges you experienced with them when they were younger and less mature -- and would they prefer to pick someone else to write the letter of recommendation? or 2) write the letter, listing the good qualities they had when working for you and briefly mentioning maturity and positive work attitude as occasional character issues that needed further development. You can also say that you see those attitudes developing now (if you do) in E's life, and offer to talk with the prospective employer by phone if they have questions. Good luck --
posted by northernlightgardener at 9:30 AM on January 6, 2009

A few ideas off the top of my head:

1. Make a list of E's good and bad points. Decide which of the good to mention, and which of the bad you can turn around into something positive. Anything else, leave out.

2. Write it, maybe with 'X' instead of the name. Get a close friend/colleague to read it for you and highlight anything they'd see as negative or tepid if the reference were sent to them. Rewrite those bits.

3. Make something out of the fact that this person has improved in the time you supervised them. Remember that it takes real effort to go from so-so to good, and little effort to just coast after a great start.

4. Never feel bad about a letter of reference that shows someone in their best possible light; that's what they're for, and the recipient knows that.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:31 AM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you are not going to back out of writing the letter....please make sure you write the best possible letter you could.....after all he was the 18 year old NOT by now you should be able to do the following:

a) Back-up your own promises (which you want to do)
b) Should know how to discourage your own emotions and just do what you have to do (i.e writing the letter).

If you cant do the two things above and it is very daunting on you to write a completely POSITIVE letter. Then dont write one...

You should be thinking that you are giving this person the opportunity to grow up and should give him an example of how you want him to act if he was in your shoes.
posted by The1andonly at 9:32 AM on January 6, 2009

dig out all the key phrases you've used in references for other people over the years then pick out the ones that could be fairly applied to E, discard the rest and then arrange what you have left into a coherent whole. You get to leave out stuff you don't feel you can stand by but E still gets a positive reference. It's up the programme to work out what's missing if they want to.
posted by biffa at 9:35 AM on January 6, 2009

You talk about the work qualities that were good, and you turn the bad stuff around as best you can. Sounds like E was good in a crunch/under deadline, for example, or "appreciates a challenge." Maybe you can draw some parallels between the experience E had with the work in general and social services work, so that instead of just an "Oh, E's just peachy" recommendation letter, you can point out the applicable experience E has versus maybe a straight out of high school applicant.

I don't think recommendations are expected to be lengthy or highly-detailed; part of the requirement is, I think, to prove the student capable of acquiring them at all.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2009

Maybe you could go out to lunch or coffee with E and find out what they are up to and why they are going into the undergrad program. This could give you some insight as to how much E has grown up and what E plans to do with the degree. Then you could mention the positive growth in the letter of recommendation, which still makes it a positive and honest account.
posted by easy_being_green at 9:38 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could also write the letter as honestly as you can, then send a copy to him, and ask him if he still wants you to submit it. Don't know if you're comfortable with that, but that is one straightforward way of giving him the option to back out.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:42 AM on January 6, 2009

You have answered your question yourself. He's applying to go to school. It seems like the issues you had with him wouldn't necessarily make him a bad candidate for an undergraduate program. Write the letter being as positive as you can, and like a poster said above, try and turn negatives into positives. If the letter ends up feeling tepid because you can't think of that many positives, so be it. I would not mention issues you had with him.

If I were you, I would not send the letter to him directly--you should send it directly to the school, cc'ing him if you desire. You want to avoid giving him a letter of recommendation that he could use to get a job or apply for something for which you thing he is not properly suited.
posted by ms.v. at 10:03 AM on January 6, 2009

Seconding those above who have said that you should ignore your reservations and write the best letter you can for this person. Unless they are applying for graduate study, or a job, in a field in which you are well-known, there's no reason for you to say anything negative. It's not dishonest, by the way: you've been asked to write a letter recommending this person, not a letter that somehow evaluates the whole of their character. So don't sweat the moral side of it.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:18 AM on January 6, 2009

(1) Write a letter than frankly describes his strengths and weaknesses.
(2) Delete all references to his weaknesses.
(3) Change the frank descriptions of his strengths to mildly effusive praise of his strengths.

Done. Your job is not to offer a neutral, unbiased evaluation to the school. Your job is to write the best letter you can without actually lying -- if you are not a teensy bit uneasy about the praise you're heaping on or the downsides you're ignoring, you are not doing your job.

This would be different if you were writing a letter to people in your professional community who you know and who are relying on your personal relationship as a partial guarantor of full-disclosure. But you are not.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:22 AM on January 6, 2009

I would make a distinction between a disappointing inability to live up to expectations, and any likelihood of causing actual harm. Only in the latter case would I feel the need to rat anyone out, and then only obliquely, and preferably by phone, not in writing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:38 AM on January 6, 2009

Here's a way to turn the bad points around: you were a supervisor of a passionate person. Maybe you took the insubordination personally and thus interpret that as a bad quality. So now they're going to school to find out how to be more effective in this thing they're interested in doing, and you're going to hamstring them because they're too headstrong?
posted by rhizome at 11:36 AM on January 6, 2009

An 18 year old boy came through when needed, and times were tough, in a community service program. Now he is growing up to go to college for social services.

His issues sound like they were youth based. He kinda sounds like he would be an awesome contribution to society and you can help that along by focusing on his positive attributes, allowing one other person to go to college and maybe change the world.

I say focus on his strengths. Interpret a letter of recommendation as just that: what parts of him would you recommend?

Write about that.

Agreed that it would be better to not write a letter at all, then a negative one.
posted by Vaike at 11:57 AM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Let the person know you're crunched for time, and ask them to write the recommendation letter -- and that you'll review it, edit it if there's anything in there that you don't feel comfortable saying, and then send it back.
posted by davejay at 12:53 PM on January 6, 2009

"When X came to work with me in my program three years ago, he was a stubborn, opinionated 15 year old - yet with a passion for helping his community. When the going got tough, he stepped up and did more than his share. He was someone I could count on.

I am delighted that he is moving forward with his interest in social work and pursuing it for his undergraduate studies. I have seen X exhibit growth and I believe you will continue to do the same."

I'm not seeing the problem here.
posted by micawber at 1:10 PM on January 6, 2009

If this is for an undergraduate degree, they are barely going to read it anyway. It doesn't need to be long. If you feel really disingenuous go off for a paragraph or two about how great the program you were a part of was in general and how great it is having a young person, like E, give up their time to be a part of it. Talk about the kind of people/community etc etc that the program benefited blah blah... You can really fill up the vast majority of the letter doing just that. Last paragraph, talk about E's enthusiasm and hard work. You could honestly get away with barely mentioning E. The point of you being a reference is really more to highlight E's interest and dedication to the field through his volunteering, rather than his personal traits. Focus on the organization's need for volunteers like E to function, rather than on E as a person. And let's face it, E may be an immature 18 year old, but who wasn't? And it was pretty great that he volunteered his time to do a job for free because he really believed in it. He wasn't perfect, but he was there when you needed him, chances are that someone with that kind of passion will be a great asset to their undergraduate program and to his community in general when he matures a little.
posted by whoaali at 1:33 PM on January 6, 2009

Just write a slightly bland but positive letter of recommendation. I don't think anyone writes honest LORs anymore - because the risk of lawsuits is too high. If E still has issues the letter's recipient sould have spotted them; if not, no problem. It's not worth you agonising over.
posted by rhymer at 1:37 PM on January 6, 2009

You could also write the letter that limits the scope of your evaluation. "X worked for me in , giving me an opportunity to observe his abilities in A, B and C." Then outline your knowledge of those positive qualities. You don't have to do a full reference and you also don't have to write it in such a way that it recommends him for everything and anything. You could even say, "I'm pleased to recommend X on the basis of A, B and C for undergraduate studies in social work." You can limit your recommendation, but in a way that seems very specific and supportive.
posted by acoutu at 2:09 PM on January 6, 2009

Focus on the positive but be sure to keep the letter VERY brief. No more than two or three paragraphs...less if you can manage it. Be sure to include one spelling mistake.
posted by Muirwylde at 4:55 PM on January 6, 2009

I think the answers above are all very good suggestions. I wanted to add that I don't think you should feel obligated to let E see the letter you are writing. You can seal the letter with a signature or a sticker dot or something, or you can request that E give you an address where you can send the letter directly. In my experience getting letters of rec for undergrad-related purposes is that the institutions and scholarship programs that place the most value on letters of rec insist that the student waive his or her right to see the letter beforehand.
posted by folara at 5:48 PM on January 6, 2009

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