Letters of Recommendation

Published: 11/11/2011

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Letters of recommendation are becoming increasingly unreliable as a means of evaluating candidates for academic employment.

The chief reason is that the contents are no longer strictly confidential. In all but the rarest of cases a letter is apt to be favorable, even when the writer knows the candidate is mediocre or unqualified. This is because the writer fears that the candidate may later exercise his legal right to read the letter, and perhaps even sue if the contents are not to his liking.

While abolishing the practice of requiring letters of recommendation may at first seem like a good idea, there is really no better way to get reliable information about a candidate's qualifications than to ask people who have had close contact with him or her. What is needed is a means by which the letter writer can convey unfavorable information in a way that the candidate cannot perceive as such.

To this end the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR was developed. Here are a few samples:

To describe a candidate who is woefully inept: "I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."

To describe a candidate who is not particularly industrious: "In my opinion you would be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."

To describe a candidate with lackluster credentials: "All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."

To describe an ex-employee who had difficulty getting along with his co-workers: "I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine."

To describe a candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be better left unfilled: "I can assure you that no person would be better for the job."

To describe a job applicant who is not worth further consideration: "I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment.''