Would it be ok to ask this person for a reference letter?
November 23, 2013 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I haven't known him for that long. And am in a position of privilege

So, I’m applying to occupational therapy school, and looking for my second reference letter (first one is academic) and have a question about that. I’m not really looking for “is this letter going to be good enough for me to get in”, more “ would it be ethical to use this letter.” Also I'm not really looking for advice on how to get reference letters because I'm trying to figure that out separately.

I volunteered in a psychiatric hospital with permanent residents for 3 months this past summer. The main job of the volunteers is to provide a change of scenery for the residents, and let them interact with someone from the outside world. So we would go for walks with them, play games and music, help with daily activities, or just talk. My volunteer supervisor took a lot of time to talk with me each time I came because he said in the past some volunteers had become burned out. We talked each time and I told him about my aspiration to be either a nurse or occupational therapist and we got to know each other. He is a former psychiatric patient who has successfully overcome debilitating mental illness through treatment (many many years worth I think), and has now completed university training to be a worker (I’m not sure what kind) in a psychiatric setting.

So given how well he knows me and the setting in which I met him, it seems like he could provide a great reference letter. I just have some questions about whether this is kosher or not. I definitely am not in the mindset of wanting to try and get away with something for the sake of getting into the program. I want to do this ethically or not at all especially given the nature of the work.

First question is, is three months of knowing me through volunteering long enough for him to ethically write a reference letter? The reason I stopped volunteering was, in August I started a fulltime job which then turned into someone from work quitting and me doing 2 peoples' jobs. This was my employers' plan the whole time but I didn't know, and I was very stressed for a couple months trying to adapt to it. It's no way near as hard as I thought it was going to be, which I realize now so I'm considering starting to volunteer again.

Second, is it ethical for me to ask this from him. I ask this because, it feels like I’m using him to advance my career. We come from different backgrounds and I feel very privileged to be in the position of trying to advance my career unimpeded by any debilitating condition. Whereas he has been in the thick of mental illness (whether personally suffering from it, or working with others who do) for decades probably. I have a hunch that he would agree to do it because I witnessed the great kindness he possesses (which I think could be the type of kindness that is hard –won through intense suffering). would I be taking advantage of that kindness though?
posted by winterportage to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: First, that's a question only he could really answer. If you knew each other and he was able to observe you working regularly and he's able to speak to things he saw, then sure, three months is fine. He'll speak to what he can speak to.

Second, of course it is. He was your supervisor. You're not using him, not in a negative way. You are seeking his help for something he's in a position to speak to. It's perfectly fine to ask that of people. He has the ability to say yes or no. Don't take his ability to make a decision for himself away from him because you suppose he's kind. You're not asking for anything even remotely unusual.

If you'll allow me, this Ask feels a lot to me like anxiety. I would have similar feelings if it were me, but looking from the outside, I tell you that most of what you're saying isn't how most other people would likely see it.

I wish you luck.
posted by inturnaround at 4:59 PM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why you think it would be taking advantage of him. You volunteered, you established a pretty close relationship and you'd like him to attest to that. I'm sure he'll be really happy that you asked and want to continue helping people.

Don't think of it as you taking something from him, but rather offering him the opportunity to help you out. The level of guilt you're feeling seems pretty extreme to me.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 5:00 PM on November 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's perfectly acceptable. Go for it.
posted by xingcat at 5:06 PM on November 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think it would be absolutely appropriate/ethical, though I agree that three months isn't that long. I say that not because of ethics but because it will make the letter potentially count for less in reviewers' eyes.
posted by vegartanipla at 5:07 PM on November 23, 2013

Best answer: He was your supervisor; of course it's ethical. I realize you're trying to be sensitive to his history, but you're coming very close to patronizing him because of his diagnosis and treating him as if he were still a patient rather than a fully autonomous person who actually did have power over you.
posted by jaguar at 5:12 PM on November 23, 2013 [22 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as an older person, I am generally pleased to be able to help promising younger people - it gives me a sense that I am able to use my experience and age instead of just feeling that I am old and behind the times. Also, being asked to write a letter is flattering (especially if you are outside academia) because it suggests that your opinion is important.
posted by Frowner at 5:24 PM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Would you hesitate to ask him if, instead of a history of mental illness, he had a history of some physical condition, such as cancer or a heart transplant or something? Because I suspect that you wouldn't be asking if the question were, "I'd like to ask my supervisor to write a letter of recommendation for me to go back to school, but he had his leg amputated a few years ago, and I still have all of my limbs, so I'm not sure whether it's appropriate to ask him, since it's not fair for me, a two-legged person, to take advantage of someone with one leg because his leg amputation makes him unable to say no to people."

Please don't treat your supervisor as though he is infirm, or pitiable, or less capable of making his own decisions than you because he's had a history of mental illness. He is your supervisor at work. The only question should be whether he is willing and able to attest to the relevant skills to write a reference for you. And the only way to know the answer to that question is to ask politely, and to let him decide. To do anything else is insulting to him as a rational adult, not to mention disrespectful of the position he has earned in his career.
posted by decathecting at 6:13 PM on November 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

He is your volunteer supervisor, I'm having a hard time thinking of someone it would be MORE appropriate to ask for a reference letter in this situation.

Everything else I was going to say is basically exactly what decathecting said.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:20 PM on November 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It seems like you're making this way more convoluted than it is. He was your superior, he has the ability to comment on your character and capabilities. That's exactly the kind of person you're supposed to ask for letters of reference.

Most people who have jobs got them partly because someone was willing to vouch for their character or capabilities in a letter of reference. Letters of reference aren't really a favor, they're just a way of continuing the system of trust on which we all depend.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:26 PM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

In addition to what everyone else has said: giving letters of reference is usually part of a manager/superior’s job. This is not to say that they can't refuse you, just that this isn't a personal request that you're making. Many people volunteer for the sole purpose of getting letters of recommendation. Believe me, non-profits are well used to this.
posted by Shouraku at 7:06 PM on November 23, 2013

He was your supervisor. You're not at all in a position of privelege here, your backgrounds are completely irrelevant. This person will speak as the person who trained and monitored your volunteer activity, not as a person who overcame obstacles. It's inappropriate for you to consider this person in any light other than qualified supervisor who helped you avoid burnout.
posted by headnsouth at 7:43 AM on November 24, 2013

Response by poster: This is exactly what I need to hear, and especially is an attitude I need to work on if this is going to be my chosen profession. Helpful in many ways thanks!
posted by winterportage at 1:04 PM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is exactly what I need to hear, and especially is an attitude I need to work on if this is going to be my chosen profession.

Thanks for being open to working on it. I work with a number of psychiatric OTs, and while some of them are lovely, some of them are extremely condescending to the patients (talking to them like they're five years old is a big one) and it's not an attitude that sets much expectation for the patients' recovery.

Which is actually one of the reasons your supervisor would be a great person to write a recommendation for you -- he's been "on both sides" and so has a fairly unique insight into what helps patients and what doesn't.
posted by jaguar at 4:34 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I thought it might helpful to clarify when/why you could get into ethically questionable turf -
1. If you are in high power position asking a favor of someone in a lower power position - they might not feel perfectly free to say no, so it is wrong to ask them for favors outside of the scope of the job/relationship. (Doesn't apply - first, he is in the higher power position and second what you are asking is related to your employment/volunteer position
2. If the relationship itself is supposed to be confidential - for example you would not want to ask a client who has a promise of confidentiality to go on publicly as having received services from you. (Doesn't apply since he is also doing this in an official capacity, not as a client)
posted by metahawk at 4:36 PM on November 24, 2013

winterportage, I just wanted to thank you for your reply. I think your humility and openness are really commendable, and are signs that you're going to be an excellent student as you move forward in your chosen career. I hope your supervisor writes you the great reference letter you deserve.
posted by decathecting at 5:18 PM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you decathecting, it's encouraging to hear that and I can only hope you're right.
posted by winterportage at 1:41 PM on December 16, 2013

Response by poster: By the way he agreed to write the letter!
posted by winterportage at 1:42 PM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

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