bad "recommendation letters"

Charles S. Gasser csgasser at
Thu Nov 21 13:22:39 EST 1996

Companies, graduate schools, etc. usually ask for a leter of "reference"
not "recommendation".  The first is non-commital, the second implies a
positive letter.  It is ridiculous to say that writing a bad reference
letter is necessarilary illegal.  Slander is FALSELY writing negative
things about someone.  If the negative things are true then it cannot be
considered slander.  If a student who one has had a less than positive
experience with asks for such a letter it is the obligation of the
instructor/supervisor to tell the student that a positive letter cannot
be written.  A bigger problem arises when one is not asked by the
student prior to being given out as a referee.  Then the potenital
employer/school calls you cold.  It is your obligation (in my opinion)
to give as candid and accurate a view of the student as you can relative
to the position for which the individual is being considered.  I was not
surprised to read that Jenn's advisor had given a positive
recommendation for one position and a more negative one for another.  If
the positions are different this can make good sense.  I have given a
relatively negative recommendation for a former employee when she
applied for a job that required exceptional interpersonal skills because
this was an area of great weakness in this ingividual.  In contrast when
I was asked about her for a direct bench job I gave her my highest
unqualified recommendation because she clearly was outstanding in this
regard.  She got the second job and I have learned that her employers
are EXTREMELY happy with her performance.  She is advancing rapidly.  To
inaccurately give a positive recommendation to a person for a position
for which they are not qualified is dishonest and is not likely to be a
service to the person or to their potential employer.  No one is happy
trying to do a job that they are not good at!  However, we are not all
knowing and can be wrong.  That is why three referees are usually

Write what your conscience tells you, but try to let the student know
the likely tenor of your letter!

My 13 cents!

Chuck Gasser
csgasser at

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