The Tough Art of Recommendation Letters


 By Randy Ataide

One of the “joys” of being in business for many years is the task of writing recommendation letters. Even if an employee was less than stellar, one can usually find a way in which you can diplomatically write a letter which delineates for the careful reader what is being said. There is no standard format to follow in such situations, and in large part the ability to write, read and interpret such letters and recommendations is an art and skill that comes with experience. Our tendency should always be towards grace in both composition and interpretation, but within limits. It is a difficult but necessary skill in business.

As an attorney, this situation is analogous to that of the testimony of witnesses—one needs such testimony to provide commentary, observation and opinion as to a specific event before the bar. And such testimony, when unbalanced by either understating or overstating what actually was observed, can seriously erode the process and search for truth. It is the same for recommendation letters for employment. Some years ago my partner and I made a multi-year contractual employment decision on an executive who turned out to not have the track record that we thought he had. It was a very expensive blunder made in part by recommendations that others made and our unwillingness to validate the recommendations.

Recently, I came across a publicly posted recommendation letter by one executive regarding a firm’s past senior executive who left a company after a few years of service. Both of these persons were seasoned professionals. Knowing some of the facts of situation I was surprised to read that the executive was, among many other stated attributes, “brilliant, respected, innovative, accomplished, entrepreneurial, and esteemed.” The letter was effusive and unhesistant in its praise of the departed executive; there was no possible interpretation other than that the executive was simply one of the finest, if not the finest, in the specific industry. It was not unreasonable to conclude that any company that would let such a talented star go was losing a formidable asset, when in my view, the reality was far different than stated in the recommendation.

This letter made me think about the many letters I have written myself and continue to write, most particularly for students of mine as they make their way from the classroom to the workforce. Do my words really count? Do I have a responsibility to inform the reader that the student performed well but not superbly? Is there a difference between good performance and excellent? Should other factors help shape my opinion and language used? Does overly stating the qualifications or performance of someone actually harm those who do perform in a superior way and deserve such recommendations?

The concern for the business community should be similar to that of many of our other institutions when attributes and performance is inflated and exagerrated. Certainly, everyone has an opinion, but I have yet to use in any letter for any person the phrase “esteemed” let alone “brilliant.” I am not categorically opposed to such language but want to be very careful when I would ever use it. (Similarly, my students know that I am a stickler when it comes to using the word “perfect” in a presentation or paper!) When does a recommendation pass from mere hyperbole to persuading a company to invest potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on a leader who cannot lead? Is there a greater responsbility to the business community? I think so.

For me, this current situation is a good reminder of the importance of not overstating someone’s qualifications and performance, for an attempt to be “nice” can in fact do the opposite of what is actually needed in such situations. Sometimes, a person asking for a recommendation is far better served by taking him or her to coffee, talking about what went wrong or right in the past situation, and possibly offer wise counsel for how to improve in the future. Recommendation letters, especially for executives, are not participant ribbons handed out to grade school children with little consequence or long-term impact.

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