Reading old letters of recommendation
January 10, 2006 2:50 PM   Subscribe

I recently sent out several job applications that required letters of recommendation from a professor. The professor's secretary sent me a box of letters that were sealed, mail-merged, and addressed to each recipient, with the intention that I drop the letter inside the application package. (This is standard operating procedure, as far as I know.) I ended up not sending a few applications for which I received letters because the recipients later indicated that no positions were available. The application period is now over and I was not offered a position. I will not reuse these letters in the future. May I ethically open the remaining sealed envelopes and read the letter?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Ethically, no. They are not your letters; they are not addressed to you; they do not belong to you.

But I would not be shocked if you opened them anyway.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2006

No. Reading sealed correspondence between two other people is not ethical.
posted by blue mustard at 2:57 PM on January 10, 2006

Absolutely not.

But there is a way out. Just ask the professor if you can read one. If the professor says it's ok then there is no problem.

If the professor says no, then of course it remains unethical.

Also, I will point out that if this were happening in non-academic circles in the US or Canada, then it would be unlikely for a poor reference to be provided. The vast majority of people will simply not provide a reference, in lieu of giving a poor one. I don't know if this is the case in academic circles or outside the US and Canada.
posted by lockedroomguy at 3:04 PM on January 10, 2006

Well, since you are going to open them anyway, I'll give you a conscience-clearing excuse:

The reason they are pre-sealed is not so you won't read it, but rather so you can't change it. Unless your professor has asked you not to read it, I don't think there's any reason you shouldn't. It was written on your behalf, anyway.

However, if this the only comment that says that, feel free to ignore this.
posted by menace303 at 3:04 PM on January 10, 2006

No. The secretary should not have sent them to you (even if this is SOP). If the department can't (or won't) send them out, they should have asked you to provide stamped pre-addressed envelopes.

Some professors will give you a copy of the letter. This is the only circumstance under which you may know what's in it.

(This reminds me of a very painful episode involving the following question: If I have a friend on the hiring committee at X College, would it be unethical to apply there with the intent that they let me know if there are any red flags in my file? My experience is that the majority of letter-writers consider this to be grossly unethical. Your question, I think, they wouldn't even want to consider.)
posted by gleuschk at 3:13 PM on January 10, 2006

This isn't even close. Absolutely not.

There was an obvious understanding that you would not read the letter. I have written many letters of recommendation in the past and the one time when I knew the student would be able to see the letter, I definitely wrote it differently than I otherwise would have.

I think it's fairly odious to ask the professor at this point. What the professor wrote was something he/she never expected you to see, if you want to know what he/she thinks of you, just ask directly, don't ask about the letter.
posted by allen.spaulding at 3:14 PM on January 10, 2006

Oops, that first sentence ended up not making sense. If the department can't (or won't) pay for them to be sent out, they should have asked you to provide stamped pre-addressed envelopes so they could send them for you.
posted by gleuschk at 3:18 PM on January 10, 2006

When you submit these applications, don't they often have a line asking you whether or not you want to waive your right (granted by Federal Law, I believe) to read recommendation letters written on your behalf? If you had answered 'no' to this question, and your prof was somehow aware of this fact, then I don't think your reading the letter would fall outside the bounds of ethical behavior.
posted by reformedjerk at 3:28 PM on January 10, 2006

reformedjerk, I've only seen those regularly for academic applications (undergrad, grad, law, etc). This was for a business, so I assume that it wasn't there. Without explicit permission, anonymous should err on the side of confidentiality.
posted by allen.spaulding at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2006

Ethically no, but I was in your position a few years ago with postgrad applications and opened the letters. It was actually a big ego-boost.
posted by meerkatty at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2006

I wouldn't consider it ethical (though I would consider it awfully tempting).

The only time I've read a reference someone sent on my behalf was when, as mentioned above, the professor gave me two copies: one in a sealed envelope and the other not, with the statement I could read it if I wanted to.
posted by Tuwa at 3:41 PM on January 10, 2006

The question I would ask myself though is: will I stop at reading the letter?

What if you read it and you don't like what it says? Then what?
What if you do like what it says and then get all upset at why you didn't get anny offers?

I don't think reading the letter is going to answer anything. It's just going to give you more questions.

Sometimes it's just best to let it be.
posted by eatcake at 4:19 PM on January 10, 2006

Seriously, just open them. It's not a big deal.
posted by thirteenkiller at 4:39 PM on January 10, 2006

Do you feel like the professor's recommendation was part of the reason why you didn't get the job? For some reason, I get the feeling they were judicial clerkship applications...if so, then you may very well need to figure out what's in the letter so you can decide what to do for future years -- if you need to find a new recommender.

I agree that opening the envelope is unethical; maybe you can ask another professor to suss it out for you? That or ask the recommender straight up what kind of letter he wrote. You could bring it up as part of general post-mortem discussion on this round of applications.
posted by footnote at 4:41 PM on January 10, 2006

It is not nearly as clear cut as people are making it out to be. In some jurisdictions, an application is a document that you have full access to at any time. Therefore you can go to the school and read it from an application you did send in.

That's still not the same as just reading one of the copies you have, but not that far away.

Secondly, you have rights in this matter. What is also unethical is for the prof to have written a negative letter. His or her letter didn't have to be glowing beyond reason, nor did it have to lie in the least, but the correct answer for a student a prof doesn't think has the potential to succeed is "No, I will not recommend you," not a negative letter.

Undocumented negative letters are actionable in many areas, as are work references BTW.

Given that, the prof may assume that you will read the letter and there's a good chance he or she will have no problem with it. But I would ask first.
posted by mikel at 4:50 PM on January 10, 2006

Yeah, its probably unethical (as stated by all the great reasons above), but if it makes you feel any better, I would totally read one if I were in your shoes.
posted by AlisonM at 4:57 PM on January 10, 2006

Second the idea that the content is probably just a big ego boost, nothing juicy.
posted by Firas at 4:57 PM on January 10, 2006

I believe it's against the law (in Illinois at least) to give a poor recommendation -- if someone is a poor employee, you can't say that, you can only say that they worked at a place from X date to X date and made X money as their final salary, but can't give any other info.

So my assumption is that if you have a letter, it will either say you're awesome, or that you attended X school from X date to X date and you got X grades in X classes.

Me, I'd open one if I didn't need it any more and was going to throw them away anyway. Who's it going to hurt except yourself?
posted by macadamiaranch at 5:03 PM on January 10, 2006

Nope. Return them to the professor.
posted by caddis at 5:12 PM on January 10, 2006

You could return them to the professor and ask permission to read the letter. That would eliminate the ethical issue, the question of whether they were sealed to prevent tampering instead of snooping and would close the loop with the professor and provide an opportunity to thank him for the time he invested.
posted by VulcanMike at 5:22 PM on January 10, 2006

The hell with ethics: you need to know. I wasted a year of my life applying to decent universities in the reasonable expectation that I could get a place at one, only to discover from a loose-lipped interviewer that the teacher from my school who'd written my academic reference had given me "the most damning write-up [he]'d ever seen" in what I believe was a deliberate attempt to screw up my future. (The man was an arse.) So unless you trust the professor utterly and completely, and are happy that he will have told the truth about you, then go ahead and look.
posted by Hogshead at 5:27 PM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with caddis, any unused letters should be given back to the prof who wrote them for you. That way you remove the temptation.
posted by number9dream at 6:04 PM on January 10, 2006

There's ethicality, and then there's what you should do now. Return them to the professor, and take that opportunity to start a conversation: "So, I didn't get any offers this time around. Is there anything that you can think of that I can do next year to improve my chances? Would you be willing to write for me again next time, or do you think it would be a better idea if I found someone else to write?" This gives them a graceful out if in fact they wrote you a poor letter (though as others have pointed out, the ethical [and possibly legal] thing for them to do in that case would have been to decline to write).
posted by gleuschk at 6:35 PM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

May you do so ethically? No, absolutely not.

I got rejected almost everywhere for grad school one year and arranged to read the letters. One of them was really bad, and having changed recommenders I got into much better schools the next year. Was it ethical for that guy to write me a "recommendation" when what he wrote was not, in fact, a recommendation? I don't think so.

Such fuckheads are really, really, rare. It's much easier to say "no, I won't go to effort on your behalf" than "yes, I will go to effort to screw you over".

I know they're rare since I'm a professor now and have read many hundreds of recommendations. I have seen none that compared to the one written for me. I have every expectation that if you do (unethically) read this letter, you won't find any smoking gun, just a nice bland recommendation.
posted by Aknaton at 6:37 PM on January 10, 2006

so, 2 of 21 comments so far have been by people who have managed to get ahold of their recommendation letters after being rejected from whatever, only to discover that they've been screwed by the man?

i realize these questions bear some self-selecting answers, but maybe it's not so rare as it seems for this to happen!

ethically, i agree you should not open the letter and read it. however, it may be doing yourself a serious disservice not to do so, if it turns out the letters are an anti-recommendation. i think in your shoes i would probably open one and feel guilty about it for a few seconds, and then move on.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 7:20 PM on January 10, 2006

Ethically, no, certainly not. Opening mail not addressed to you is tremendously nefarious. I hazily seem to remember it being illegal but Google isn't supporting that assertion.


No one will know. I would go ahead and read them alone, and make sure you properly dispose of them. As Aknaton notes, this is a perfect opportunity to check your references.

And if it's any consolation to your bruised moral fibre, they wouldn't have entrusted you with them if they were terrifically worried about you reading them. They are sealed to prevent tampering, not to keep you from seeing them. They should have sent it themselves anyway.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:26 PM on January 10, 2006

Ask the professor. I feel this is an "it depends" situation.
posted by divabat at 7:37 PM on January 10, 2006

Oh; if you can't stomach the idea of opening the letters without permission, don't bother. Certainly don't ask the prof for permission to read them. That puts him in an awkward position, having already written them, and makes you look like an untrusting, nosy egomaniac. Which you may or may not be, but the impression is what's important right now.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:56 PM on January 10, 2006

Wow, I'm pretty stunned to see the nearly unanimous opinion that it would be unethical. Myself, I follow a fairly utilitarian ethical system.. I'd say reading the letter won't hurt anyone, and would make you a bit happier by satisfying your curiosity, so it's the ethical thing to do.
posted by Sxyzzx at 10:57 PM on January 10, 2006

Ethics and importance are two different things. I don't think you'd be asking this question if you didn't suspect that the reason you didn't get any of the jobs was due to the letters possibly not being good.

I don't know about everyone else posting here, but when it comes down to not having a job, and not being able to eat, ethics pretty much go out the window for me.

If you want to open them up because you suspect they may be a cause of your lack of food on the table, by all means, open, and read.

I think the real ethics come into play after you open and read the letter. Don't tell the professor, or anyone for that matter.

If it's good, make sure to thank the professor at a non-suspicious time for their trouble, and call it done. Nothing wrong with an Ego Boost. Then take your lack of getting a job as possibly some other issue, maybe you need to redesign your resume or cover letter.

If it's bad, don't call the guy on it. Just find a new reference. I think that's the key. You can't ethically open the letter AND when you find out it sucks get pissy and wave it in the guys face. Before you open, commit yourself to this: If it's bad, don't feel depressed, don't talk to the professor about it. Just move on with a new source.

Legality: It is indeed illegal to open up a piece of mail addressed to someone else. But...these letters are not yet mail, as they have no stamps, and are not part of any mail package. They're simply a piece of paper inside an envelope.
posted by Phynix at 2:18 AM on January 11, 2006

Would you do it if you knew the professor knew you were doing it?

Return them to the prof. It will make you stand out and, should you ever want to impose on his good nature again, will likely get you an high ethics mention.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:25 AM on January 11, 2006

I agree with the "read 'em" crowd. I can't believe so many people see this as some sort of line-in-the-sand ethical test. To me, ethics is about harming people. Who is harmed by reading these letters? The only possible damage is to your ego. If you're willing to take that chance, go ahead. You may learn something that will improve your prospects in the future, and that's a significant upside to weigh against a nonexistent (as far as I can see) downside.
posted by languagehat at 5:45 AM on January 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Under UK law you have a right of access to any document containing information about you that is held by an organisation (National security apart). You may request this information and the organisation must comply. This would apply to both the institution where your Professor works and the companies to which you applied. Opening the letter is just cutting out the middle man.
posted by biffa at 6:06 AM on January 11, 2006

No, I'm sorry, it's unethical, which does not necessarily mean that you shouldn't do it. There is no damage done to anyone, there may be huge benefits to knowing what's in the letter, and we are talking about your future. If you aren't comfortable opening the letter anyway, then I would follow gleuschk's advice.
posted by OmieWise at 6:38 AM on January 11, 2006

Ethically, I would say absolutely don't read the letters without permission, which you don't have.

However, practically, I think you should read the letters. IAAP, and I think it's very reasonable after not getting any offers for you to want/need to assess every part of your application to figure out why, and that includes the recommendations. So what I would do, and what I would respect a student in your situation doing, is to send the professors an email saying that you have leftover letters and would they mind if you read the letters in light of your rejections. I can't imagine anyone saying no (and if they did, there's a strong signal right there) and would actually suspect that you will get offers of further advice/consolment from the letter-writers that might be very informative.

You are not in this process alone. You asked these people for recommendations so they are already involved. Now ask them to help you figure out what to do next.
posted by dness2 at 6:43 AM on January 11, 2006

On a very long preview (and in response to lh): the ethical problem is in the danger that opening the letter erodes the trust that this professor has in the recommendation process. This is only a problem if the prof finds out, but, then, a lot of ethics are contingent. A related problem is the erosion of your own trust in processes like this. How trusting will you be in the future of a) people for whom you might write such letters, or b) other people who you might ask to write you letters? I don't want to sound too much like Randy Cohen here (as if!), but there is an ethical problem with opening a letter that seems to have been written in the expectation that you would not read it, just as there's a problem reading your sister's diary, even if she never finds out.

However, were it me, that abstruse reasoning and picayune ethical consideration would not stop me from reading letters that might contain information that I need in order to get a job.
posted by OmieWise at 6:45 AM on January 11, 2006

In a similar situation, though he knew it was unethical, a, uh, friend of mine read his letter. No one died.
posted by fidelity at 7:39 AM on January 11, 2006

Under UK law you have a right of access to any document containing information about you that is held by an organisation
posted by biffa at 6:06 AM PST on January 11 [!]

Really? Private organizations too?
posted by footnote at 10:58 AM on January 11, 2006

I'm pretty certain that it includes private organisations too. It's governed by the Data Protection Act 1998, and overseen by the Information Commissioner's Office. Simple explanation here. Information may include things such as video recordings of individuals. Applications for data must be made in writing and a fee may be charged, this has apparently been used as a block in some cases but the Commissioner can step in if this is too ludicrous. I have no idea how frequently the Act is actually used.
posted by biffa at 11:25 AM on January 11, 2006

Thanks biffa - that's really interesting. I wonder when we'll end up with something like that in the US.
posted by footnote at 1:20 PM on January 11, 2006

In the days where honor and parole and gentlemen were still concepts with active currency in the culture, reading mail or other correspondence that was not intended for you was considered to be possibly the lowest, most despicable act conceivable. I think it's still felt to be quite despicable and I would certainly never do it without advance permission from both parties.

I also would now strongly recommend against trying to get retrospective permission to do this. Depending on the content of the letter, that may place your recommender in an awkward position, and possibly may make him regret that he wrote the letter in the first place. Since the letter was ostensibly written as a favor to you, proper behavior demands that you must not do anything that could make him regret it.

Practically speaking: I no longer allow recommenders to write letters on my behalf unless I vet them - a compassionate secretary once stopped me from getting totally screwed over with a one-line letter of faint praise from someone I'd worked with on a daily basis for three years. The moral of that story is twofold: always vet your letters of rec, and ALWAYS make friends with your boss's secretary.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:29 PM on January 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

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