Is it normal to show people letters of recommendation?
October 18, 2021 9:04 PM   Subscribe

I wrote a reference letter for a grant application for a plate of beans someone I think highly of, am not in a position of power over, and hope to be friends with. I'd like to offer to share it with her if she wants to see it, but I genuinely don't know if that's okay!

I have no reason for wanting to share the letter except that I think she's great and I said so and I like to share that sort of thing with people. We were coworkers for a fairly short time, and while I was technically her supervisor our work was more collaborative—I have not offered to let former interns see the grad school reference letters I wrote for them, but this one feels more like praising a colleague. We don't work together anymore but we're friendly and I'm hoping we can be friends once we have a chance to hang out socially.

She wrote to say thank you now that her application is complete, and it feels very natural to say "my pleasure, and also if you want to see it I'm happy to share." But I thought about it, and the only person who's ever offered to let me see a reference letter was a college professor who elided a LOT of boundaries with me in a way that was very harmful. So now I'm second-guessing myself! Is it actually a fucked up thing to suggest, or some kind of weird power play? Would I be implicitly asking for gratitude? Would it put her in an awkward position?

Basically, I can't tell whether this is a creepy offer with ethical problems, or a normal offer that in my specific life has only been made by creepy people with ethical problems. Help me not be a weirdo to a person I just want to say nice things to/about and then maybe go get coffee!
posted by babelfish to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The few times I've seen letters of recommendations people wrote for me I was flattered and touched! I might just send her the letter in your response instead of offering to send it to her if she wants? That way she doesn't have to make a decision about saying yes or no. Just say something like "That's great that the application was in, it was my pleasure! Attaching it if you are interested and good luck!!"

Btw if it's useful for context the few times I saw letters of recommendation it was the following situations:

- former supervisor wrote a recommendation for grad school and sent it to me to see if there was anything that I would correct or add
- former professor shared letter he had previously written for some other application when I solicited another letter from him for grad school (I guess he kept them on file for the future)
- former higher up posted basically the contents of a grad school recommendation letter he'd written for me on my linkedin without prompting (I had to accept it for it to show up to others)
- asked former supervisor for a recommendation on LinkedIn and I'm pretty sure he just pasted in the content of the same letter he'd been sending to people at my request for various types of applications (which was a very nice recommendation, but the way it was worded and its length made me think it was his stock recommendation for me)
- a couple of times I was asked to draft the letter in the first place, haha

In none of those situations did I think it was weird ethically or did it creep me out.

(Not everyone who ever wrote me a grad school recommendation shared it with me, btw, it is just that I applied to programs on two separate occasions ....)
posted by knownfossils at 9:18 PM on October 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I don’t have a lot of experience in this sort of thing, but it does seem potentially awkward. I can understand why you would want to share it with her, but I would air on the side of caution, after all, what happens if you share it with her then she doesn’t get the beans? I don’t think it’s necessarily ethically wrong, it just seems like a bit of a gray area.
posted by Alensin at 9:19 PM on October 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

I made a promise to myself to just start asking people to go for coffee. 2/2 so far. It was WAY harder in my mind. Can you say something along the lines of “My pleasure! Let me know if you’d like to grab coffee sometime. I’d love to hear more about X.” Don’t even mention the letter.
posted by nathaole at 9:20 PM on October 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

It's not necessarily creepy (and is a super kind impulse), but speaking as a professor who writes a lot of letters of recommendation, you might want to ask her first if she wants to see it. Depending on what the application is for, sometimes the people receiving the letter want to know if the candidate has seen it. If the candidate has seen the letter or it's not confidential, recipients might weight it less because they can't be sure to what extent you're being fully honest in it.

Most of my letters are for academic programs so this might be different in the business world, but it's something to check.
posted by contrapositive at 9:21 PM on October 18, 2021

Response by poster: Just a couple points of clarification—the letter and application are already submitted, and there are already plans to get coffee! We just don't live in the same city yet and won't for another few weeks, so there's still time for me to make it awkward. :)
posted by babelfish at 9:27 PM on October 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Offering to let them see it if they ask is fine. I don't see a problem.

That being said, I've seen a couple about me in my life. I found it flattering but also pretty awkward and would not accept an offer to see one again.
posted by mark k at 9:32 PM on October 18, 2021

I would make the offer as a "if you think you might ever find it useful again, I'd be happy to send you a copy for your records" rather than as a "I just think you're neat and thought you should know". If she's curious that gives her a face-saving reason to say yes beyond "I just want to know what you wrote about me".

I have a lot of self esteem and confidence issues, and it would probably be really meaningful to me to have this. I work at a place with a performance management system that has a major peer review component and I absolutely do go back and read my reviews from my last promotion attempt when I'm feeling low.
posted by potrzebie at 10:12 PM on October 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Do you have a romantic interest towards this person? It kinda sounds like you do...? If so, lemme ask you straight, is sharing the letter appropriate given the context you’re in? Showing the letter may be inappropriate if your feelings for this person are inappropriate. Best advice is, be appropriate.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:13 PM on October 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

In the parlance of my world, what you wrote was not a “letter of recommendation” (which would be written for someone applying for a job, fellowship, or scholarship), but a “letter of support” (written for someone who has a secure position and is applying for a grant or contract). The latter is something you write for a colleague or peer. It is absolutely standard in my world to share the content of these.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:21 PM on October 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Is it actually a fucked up thing to suggest, or some kind of weird power play? Would I be implicitly asking for gratitude? Would it put her in an awkward position?

No, maybe, but definitely yes and yes.

I'm assuming you are a man and she is a woman. Your suggestion seems over-friendly at best and creepy at worst, not because there is anything implicitly wrong with offering to show her the letter if she wants to see it, but because it seems very obvious that you have an ulterior romantic motive. (If you were ALREADY friends it might be different, but you're not.)

This feels like one of those situations where a little bit down the road a man uses this as a reason to expect sex - "But I wrote that amazing letter for you! Come on, you owe me something, right?"

Maybe you're not that man. Maybe you are. Either way, showing her that letter means any future sexual attempts on your part will be seen in light of her "owing" you something. Do not be that asshole. There are more than enough of them to go round already.
posted by underclocked at 10:58 PM on October 18, 2021

OP mentions having a spouse in another question, so it doesn't sound like it is a romantic endeavor.
posted by knownfossils at 11:03 PM on October 18, 2021

Response by poster: It is not a romantic endeavor, although I knew someone would say that if I mentioned coffee, I don’t understand how you people are getting your caffeine. It’s just hard to make friends in your 40s in a new city where I don’t actually live yet! (Also not a man.)
posted by babelfish at 11:22 PM on October 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Apologies, babelfish, I made an assumption and went from there. Wrong assumption, wrong implications.

FWIW, it wasn't coffee that made me think you had romantic intentions, it was the tone which suggested you really like this person. The question reads - to me - like someone who is getting very tangled up in what things mean, and wanting to create a good impression.

If building a relationship with this person is important to you, and you're unsure whether showing them this letter will help or hinder that process, don't show it to them. Showing it runs the risk of damaging any potential for friendship, not showing it doesn't run that risk.
posted by underclocked at 11:58 PM on October 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don’t understand why so many people are finding this weird, she’s asked you to write a reference letter because you had a good relationship/she did good work and obviously has the expectation that what you write will be positive or she wouldn’t have asked. With the understanding that she’s going to be getting a good reference, why WOULDN’T you show her? A reference from a colleague will hopefully be one praising that colleague so there’s no surprises there!

She’s done the expected and right thing by thanking you, I’d just reply very straightforwardly, no problem at all, here’s what I sent through. Good luck and I hope you get the job. It’s only weird if you make it weird. (The only thing I would not do is then mention catching up for coffee because that makes it sound transactional and she may feel obliged to go. Save that for another time where you haven’t just done her a huge favour).
posted by Jubey at 2:18 AM on October 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If a recommendation letter goes directly to someone else, I don't think there's any expectation to share it, but people sometimes do. When people have shared them with me in the past, it wasn't a huge deal, but I always found it slightly awkward. In at least one case, I felt like the letter writer wanted to be thanked again for his effort, and I felt even more indebted. (Even just offering to share it means that this person has to thank you again, and I'm guessing they've probably already said thank you a couple of times.) I didn't want to read the letters, but felt obligated to. In your case, what if this person is slightly disappointed by something you said or didn't say, or (more likely) embarrassed by your effusive praise? It probably would be fine. But since you want to be friends, why risk potential awkwardness? You also want to start the friendship with as little imbalance as possible, and this reinforces that imbalance already exists.
posted by pinochiette at 5:07 AM on October 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think the awkward part is that this is after the fact. The only time I've seen such a letter was:
-busy professor who asked me to summarize my work under him first, then sent me a draft
-it was for a licensure application and former supervisor CC'd me on his submittal so I would know it was in

It's after the fact, the letter's in, the favor is done, and the only professional thing to do in reference to this letter is say "Good luck with your grant. I would of course be happy to be a reference in the future. I look forward to catching up over coffee!"
posted by DoubleLune at 6:03 AM on October 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all! I decided not to offer because I think we're both ready to shift out of colleague mode into friend mode, which means closing the book on things like professional boosterism for the moment to leave room for important friend stuff like talking shit about my old boss. But it helped enormously to have perspectives beyond the actions of one person I can't trust (that situation was closer to underclocked's read).
posted by babelfish at 8:28 AM on October 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

For what it's worth, I have shared letters of recommendation with people several times and I haven't gotten any signals whatsoever that it has been received as odd or uncomfortable. In some cases I have shared drafts to check with the person to make sure I'm saying the kind of thing they think would be helpful - but I'm clear that I'm asking them for input and not giving them carte blanche for the contents of a letter to which I am signing my name. Sometimes it has been a "here is what I said in case you get any questions about these topics during the interview" situation. And in other cases it's an "I think you're awesome and I hope you think so, too!" situation. I fully acknowledge that there are situations where the interpersonal dynamics make this difficult or impossible (e.g., there should be *no* confusion that this is a quid pro quo arrangement of any kind, some circumstances require or expect confidentiality) but when it's possible to let colleagues know that we respect them and appreciate their work then we should express that.
posted by ElKevbo at 1:43 PM on October 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

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