“Treat success and failure as the twin imposters they are.”

Rudyard Kipling

Say a colleague asks you to write a letter of recommendation. Should you? Do ethics matter in writing recommendation letters?

One professional expert on the subject said, “My motto is honesty is always the best policy, otherwise what you say may come back to haunt you later on. What if you give a positive recommendation when you don’t feel that way and he does something wrong down the road? Others may start to look at you with suspicion and question your judgment.”[1]

Say a student asks a faculty member to write a letter of recommendation. Should you?

A different professional expert posed, “Who gains, and how much? Who gets harmed, and how much? What do I owe others [i.e., the people involved], if anything? What do others owe me, if anything? These are ethical issues, which are appropriate to consider in deciding whether to write the letter. The key for me always was to make a cost versus benefit analysis in deciding whether to write the letter. The biggest benefit, assuming it’s a positive letter, is to the student who might not otherwise get the position. I’d like to think the potential employer benefits as well since the organization will get a dedicated, hard-working student with strong ethics and a solid work ethic, which I’ve identified in the classroom. That’s a plus for any employer. I might benefit as well from knowing I had a role in helping the student get the job. On the other hand, all those benefits turn to costs if the student hasn’t earned such a positive letter and I give it anyway. Even the student is harmed because there is a [strong] possibility that she/he won’t be able to perform as expected and may lose the job in short order.”[2]

I teach ethics. I’ve written scores of recommendation letters over the twenty years. No offense intended, but I don’t agree that it’s “just a matter of honesty.” Or that it’s “just a matter of cost/benefit analysis.” Acting ethically is a much higher calling than mere honesty. And it cannot ever be as simple as assessing cost against benefit. It’s truth that counts.

And therein lies the ethical challenge.

All recommendation letters are opinions. Opinions are neither true nor false. They barely hint at truth. Oscar Wilde said it best: “If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.”[3]

If you believe in your opinion, it’s true enough to pass ethical muster.

[1] http://www.workplaceethicsadvice.com/2011/09/the-ethics-of-writing-letters-of-recommendation.html

[2] http://www.higheredethicswatch.com/2017/12/should-you-write-that-letter-of-recommendation.html

[3] “Breathing On Your Own—Quotations for Independent Thinkers” Richard Kehl, Darling & Company, 2001, Seattle WA. Page 203