No more recommendation letters, please


Has this happened to you?

You find a job announcement for a position that could be a great fit for you, but it’s due tomorrow! To apply, send CV (okay), a cover letter (yeah!), and three letters of recommendation from people who coul — (ugh, forget it! There’s no way I’m going to bug my references to drop everything and send letters on my behalf.) Result: You never even apply for what might have been a fantastic job.

I can’t tell you how many jobs I never applied for just to save my referees the annoyance of having to send letters on my behalf.

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A Letter of Recommendation, Atonio Rotta (1872)

How about the flipside? Of course I am asked to write a lot of these letters, too – I’d say it averages about 30 each year (I did 55 recently). Now if most of those are the same person applying for many things then that’s not too bad and I can crank those letters out pretty quickly. But I teach some big classes, often with 100 or more students. This means that I get a lot of requests from different people, each one needing a 1–2 hour investment in me crafting that original letter. I know that it takes a lot of time for referees to write these letters because it takes a lot of time from me. But students need them because employers keep asking for them so I keep writing them.

I’m hardly the first to complain about this. One big beef a lot of folks have with written recommendations is that they so rarely make a difference in a hiring decision. We teach students to seek referees who will provide them with a good reference (if for no other reason than to avoid a potential lawsuit from providing a poor one), and that’s what we do – try to present the person in the best possible light for the position. So if every applicant has three good letters on file, then they’re not being evaluated on the strength of their own merits but on the communication skills of their referees.

It doesn’t have to be this way. How about this instead?

You find a job announcement for a position that could be a great fit for you, but it’s due tomorrow! To apply, send CV (okay), a cover letter (yeah!), and the names and contact information for three individuals who could provide a character reference for you (Yes!  I can do that!!).

Think of the boon to productivity that could result. First, instead of three separate letters needing to be written and administered and evaluated for each of, say, 40 applicants for a position (that’s 120 letters now), it’s only the 6 or so who make the short list whose references are contacted at all. Those telephone or email contacts can be brief and direct: All we really need to know is if the skills the person claims are actually skills that person has. Once it is determined that the applicant is neither a fraud nor an office-poisoning monster, the hiring decision can be based on the merits of the application and interview performance. Above all, we need to resist the temptation to ask several specific questions and follow that with a request for the referee to add anything else or attach a letter. That’s just adding insult to injury!

With a little forethought, we can make the search and screening process a lot less painful for everyone. Let’s get on this!

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One Response to No more recommendation letters, please

  1. Yes, please. This makes so much more sense. I have written letters of recommendation, but for god’s sake, just call me, I’ll tell you why you should hire Jake or Susan.

    Liked by 1 person

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