Recommendation Letters For What They Really Are – Self-Promotion & Self-Protection

Like many many things in our lives, once a practice adds a positive sheen or serves a useful purpose, it becomes a fad, which in turn becomes an end in itself. “Recommendation letters” is one such practice. It has become absurdity onto itself…not all the time, but often enough.

What is the added value of a recommendation letter? Does it really offer more genuine information about the candidate than the candidate’s own track record would indicate? Are half the recommendation letters below average, as half the candidates must be? Have there been studies comparing the impact of recommendation letters against the candidate’s ultimate academic or job performance?

At 13,000+ ft, not for the weak kneed.

At 13,000+ ft, not for the weak kneed.

For candidates in certain professions, the higher up the promotional ladder the more elaborate the application package becomes. Some positions require recommendation letters from multiple outside sources. And the higher the professional rank of the promotion, the fewer the outside professionals whose recommendations will “really matter.” Guess what? Those highly sought-after professionals are terribly busy in their own organizations and networks, and while sympathetic they just don’t have the time to compose a letter telling the other organization how good that organization’s own personnel really are. How often is the practice “Please draft a letter for me” resorted to? And what counterproductive biases enter into the decision process? Marketing oneself seems natural to extroverts, salespeople, and many Americans, but how about everyone else?

I have known one person, who upon completing such a promotional package for herself (and deeply frustrated that her home organization put her through this nightmare for the promotion she had already earned) realized that she might as well distribute this package to apply for other jobs. She did, and she switched jobs. Was that what her home organization really wanted?

And how often do reviewers, for hiring or for promotion, pay more attention to the reputation of the person writing the letter than to the letter itself? I’ve known another person, world-famous in his field, who made a practice of handwriting recommendation letters for his students. Did such handwritten letters have more influence on their recipients than the identical information sent in an email would have? (Anecdotally they seemed to, and how is that not scary?)

What’s more, if the candidate later performs much below expectations (as most employees do a fraction of the time and a fraction of employees do most of the time), we can always use the cover that “hey, so and so thought he was really good.” To what extent do these recommendation letters vary profoundly… and so, what value do they really serve? Cynical? Tell me otherwise.

What I am driving at is this: Due process has its merits, but when we go through the process only for the sake of the process, we don’t just delegate anymore; we abdicate our responsibilities. If I was tasked to hire or promote someone, it means others want my judgment. Judgement, not formality or formula. I’d examine the candidate’s record carefully and interview the candidate accordingly, with quality questions. I’d pick up the phone and call a few people who know the candidate.

Hiring and promoting are more art than science; ultimately, it comes down to making a judgment call, yet we instead hide behind process hoping that yields a better hire or justifiable promotion. We seem to have lost our trust in judgment, our own and others’. The reason for that is a different topic and a lot more complicated…so I keep writing on these issues.

Till next issue,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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