To whom it may concern

recommendationOne of life’s awkward situations: You’re asked to write a letter of recommendation, but you have little to say that’s good. It might be a former employee, a student, or even a family member.

If you agree to write a recommendation letter, you’ve already implicitly agreed to say something nice. If the person has done something illegal and you’re aware of it, you can’t just ignore it. Better to decline the request.

The first question to ask yourself is, “How important is the outcome?” The amount of positive blarney your conscience will allow is inversely proportional to the risk that your letter will affect the result. Let’s say your nephew is applying to an Ivy League college and you know he has no chance. You can exaggerate his virtues a little, no harm will come to humanity, and your family will still speak to you. If a college applicant is unworthy, it’s doubtful your recommendation alone is going to influence the admissions committee.

But if you manage a hospital emergency room staff and a bad apple (who was fired) applies at another hospital, you might understandably hesitate to foist him on another facility where lives are at stake. Some companies prohibit managers from giving recommendations, positive or negative, for former employees. Here’s why:

Scenario 1: Your letter is negative. The applicant doesn’t get the job. You (and your company) can be accused of defamation and blamed for the person’s inability to become re-employed.

Scenario 2: Your recommendation is positive. The person turns out to do a terrible job or steals from the new employer. You (and your company) can be accused of knowingly helping the new employer to hire a bad employee.

Assuming the consequences are neutral, recommendations can still be awkward. Imagine a former employee or co-worker is not particularly innovative, creative, or hard-working. Not awful, just not great. How do you handle it?

    • Keep it brief and say no more than is necessary. When people write to fill space, that’s when they get into trouble.
  • Focus on how much the person improved over time. (In three years, he grew increasingly responsible …)
  • Create a draft listing good points and bad points. Then eliminate the bad points or turn them into good qualities. (Instead of plodding and slow, say he was deliberate and careful …)
  • Above all, don’t resort to those double-meaning phrases we’ve all heard about:

    You’d be fortunate to get this person to work for you.
    She’s an unbelievable worker.
    No one would be better for this job.
    I would waste no time in hiring this person.

     People are wising up to those.

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