“You will be fortunate to get him to work for you.” Hmmm? Does that mean that he is such a good catch that you will be fortunate to have him on staff? Or does it mean that if you hire him, you will be fortunate if he does any work at all?
Giving ambiguous recommendations is growing to the extent that there is now a book by Robert Thornton on “Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations” (read that: “L.I.A.R.”).
Sadly, American society has become so overly cautious, driven in part by fear of lawsuit, that it is getting difficult for an employer or university to get accurate recommendations. And because there is so much more to a person than their class grades and other written records, accurate information on relationships with co-workers or teachers, honesty, work ethic, etc. is more important than ever before.
At the university level, we are asking students to designate as “closed” the blank reference forms they provide us, meaning that what we write about them will be unknown to the student. Many school administrators no longer value a reference if it is “open” to inspection by the candidate. That sends the sad message that teachers are writing falsely positive recommendations, and that teachers can only be trusted to be honest in secret.
In spite of the fears of teachers—and we are admittedly in a low-income and sensitive profession—we would be hard-put to find a legal ruling that has penalized us for giving an honest negative reference. To sue us, they would have to show that we were acting in malice toward them. In reality, the courts are very aware of the vital role of honest recommendations.
It takes backbone to be honest with students. When students ask for recommendations, we must be willing to tell them when we cannot say favorable things. There is no excuse for condemning them with faint praise or providing ambiguous platitudes.
It is important to provide specific examples of abilities and performances where we know them. And while we are not fortune-tellers, we must also make judgement calls on honesty, collegiality, and other attitudes beyond observed skills. When administrators call me to check a reference on a candidate who was my student teacher, they always conclude by thanking me for my candor—their overwhelming appreciation tells me that it is getting harder for them to get honest and full references.
This is graduation season, a time to write reference letters and paint each candidate in the accurate and meticulous detail that will help schools and employers make the best placement decisions.
“I cannot recommend ambiguous references too highly.” Indeed, I do not recommend them at all.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.