Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Ethics of Letters of Recommendation

Interesting ethical question that arose in a conversation the other day and figured I'd throw it out there for you folks to bat around -- is it immoral to have a friend look at your confidential letters of recommnedation to make sure one of your recommenders isn't shooting down your applications?

We were discussing the case of an acquaintance of a friend who seemed to have a very strong track record, but wasn't even getting interviews much less job offers. There are any number of factors that could explain this: typos in your cv (academic resume), a lousy cover letter, poorly chosen writing sample are but a few. But it could be in the letters.

When applying for a job as a professor, you have people send letters of recommendation. The candidate generally does not see the letters, but it is a standard, understood practice that if you cannot write a strong letter in support of the person, you decline to write. If a person gets a bad letter, it is taken very seriously -- especially given that the number of academic jobs is incredibly small compared to the number of applicants for them. A bad letter could mean that the applicant had no better options and that would mean trouble. It could be that there is a personality conflict with the letter writer and the writer agreed to write in order to torpedo the person's application making sure that no other department makes the mistake of hiring this trouble-maker. Or, it could be that the recommender is simply tone-deaf to the job process and is too oblivious to realize that he is doing harm, not helping the applicant. In a competitive job market, one bad letter can sink you and keep you from being able to pursue your life's work.

But you cannot ask to see your letters. They are suppose to be confidential. But if you knew that you had a bad letter from him or her, then you could help yourself by not asking that person to send a letter in the next go-round.

Suppose that you have a friend at a college with an opening you could apply for and that friend was willing to read the letters and tell whether there is one that you should not send out henceforth. Is that acceptable? You have not seen the letters, but a sympathetic eye has vetted them for you in order to make sure no one is doing you dirty. To agree to write a letter and then write a weak or negative letter without telling the applicant is akin to lying. It is a standard community practice that you should not agree to write the letter or make clear that it would not be the strongest letter if it will not be a good recommendation. So what you are doing is just making sure you weren't wronged. At the same time, the writer is writing under the assumption that the content of the letter would not be communicated to the applicant. While you are not getting details about the specific content or wording, you are getting some vague sense of it. Is that enough to put it over the confidentiality line? Does it matter whether the position was really one you were interested in or whether it was a straw-application for the purpose of checking the letters?