To Dish or Not To Dish

Dear @bby,

I am being asked to write a recommendation letter for someone who has been working with me for 3 years and who I think sucks. What should I do? Should I simply decline to do it? Or should I say what I honestly think about that person and his work? — because he deserves it!

Sincerely, Conflicted Recommender

Dear Conflicted Recommender: By by now you probably realized that recommendation letters are the currency of your trade. A negative recommendation may stop that person’s career on its tracks. You have the power! Before you indulge yourself in dishing that poor soul and pulling the rug from under him so unelegantly, ask yourself the following questions: (a) Does that person’s work really suck, or is your dislike of him, and it, a consequence of a bad fit, mismatched expectations and/or personal issues? (b) Did you take the time to tell that person how displeased you were with his work, how he needed to change if he wanted to continue to work for you, and, most importantly, how his poor performance would influence your recommendation to future employers?

Your answers to these questions will determine the right course of action.

If you can’t guess, the no-no situation here is for you to write a letter that sounds like a Youtube comment. That can actually work against you, and can thwart your plans to end that person’s career. You accumulate Youtube commenter vitriol (a form of black energy recently discovered by astrophysicists) when you let things roll with that person without ever expressing your concerns directly to him, or take a passive-aggressive attitude, until the time comes to write that killer letter that will avenge your frustration with that person. The professor reading that letter on the other end will likely think you, not him, are the jerk. Let’s be honest: you might have been the jerk here. How could you possibly waste 3 years supervising someone who you think sucks? You should have gotten rid of him long ago.

So make sure that during those 3 years of unpleasant interactions you made your concerns known to that poor soul. If he was foolish enough to stay, and even more foolish to ask you for a recommendation letter, then you have gained the right to dish him. Do so carefully. Start by saying that you made all you could to get rid of him, and even told him the letter wouldn’t be good, but that he didn’t understand, so you are in the unfortunate situation of having to write this letter.

Better yet: don’t write it at all. If you have nothing nice to say, decline to give your recommendation. The professor on the other end will get the smoke signals and will interpret them accordingly. This is a manner of conveying what you think without having to say a word, so don’t let your emotions get in the way.

Dear @bby is written by @bb1941l v@n Bµr3n. @bby channels uncommon common sense for cynic academics. Send her your difficult questions by email to abby at this web site’s domain name.


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