Tuesday, May 25, 2010


An FSP reader has a conundrum.

Imagine that you find yourself in this situation (anecdote condensed and edited from the original e-mail): A friend and co-worker has lost his/her job. You think this person has been treated unfairly, but you don't know the official facts of the case. Rumor has it that this person had done unethical things, but you have worked closely with this person and had found him/her to be very professional and reliable. On the basis of your own very positive professional interactions with this person, you write positive letters of reference for faculty jobs.

You later receive credible information indicating that this person was in fact lying about a great many things to a great many people, and that there was substantial unethical conduct. You can no longer stand by the statements in the letters of reference that you sent on this person's behalf.

This person claims to have found a position that will begin in the fall, but you don't know if this is true and there is no one at that school whom you can ask informally. A web search doesn't turn up anything, but it probably wouldn't for a recent hire anyway.

Do you have an ethical obligation to contact the schools to which you sent the positive recommendations and inform them that you can no longer stand by the statements to which you signed your name? Would search committees and department chairs want to know this?

Aside from the ethical considerations, what might be the consequences of these now-discredited letters for your professional reputation, especially if you are an early career faculty member trying to get established? Are the consequences worse if you retract your statement or if you do nothing?

What would you do?

First, I want to reassure my correspondent that he/she should not regret writing the positive letters. The letters were written in good faith, based on personal experiences working with the colleague in question. The letter no doubt mentioned these positive interactions, perhaps providing specific examples. If there were no indications of unethical behavior in these interactions, the letter was a fair statement of what the letter writer knew to be true.

If the letter stayed close to the specific interactions that the letter writer had with this colleague, perhaps a retraction is not necessary. If, however, the letter writer made some broader statements that really should be retracted, perhaps a brief letter should be sent to the relevant search committee chairs and/or department chairs.

The letter need not elaborate on the situation, but could just say something like "Owing to facts that have come to my attention since I wrote the letter on behalf of Colleague X, I can no longer stand by the positive letter that I wrote on his/her behalf. Please retract my letter, if this is possible and relevant to your search." You can decide whether you are comfortable mentioning that you are willing to provide further explanation if necessary, and then list your phone number.

If Colleague X has a new job, there must have been more than one positive letter.

Another possibility is to discuss this with a trusted senior colleague -- e.g., a mentor or the department chair. Perhaps they can intercede in the situation, especially if there is a senior person with more direct knowledge of the unethical doings of Colleague X who would be willing to help figure out the best course of action.

But perhaps various readers will have various other suggestions..


sam said...

Retract and explain. What other honest options are there, really?

Clarissa said...

One's letters of recommendation should be based on one's own experiences with the person in question, not on some information coming from some third parties that might seem credible today and turn out to be a lot less credible tomorrow.

If this were my colleague and my letter of recommendation, I would resist all attempts by anybody to involve me in rumor-mongering. Of course, I would only ever agree to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague I know so well that very few surprises can be possible. If after I wrote the letter there were some "revelations" about this colleague, I would simply not listen to them.

Z said...

The letter writer should be very careful. If he/she retracts the letter, and the colleague subsequently gets a job offer revoked, he/she may be liable for libel.

It is hard to say much more without knowing the nature of the ethical violations.

Ricochet said...

Similar not the same. A teacher in our school was very unethical (her certification eventually was withdrawn by the state). She moved on to another state and continued the same behavior. The joy of the internet is that someone from her past found this out and notified the people before it went as far as it had at our school.

I don't teach in a college, but the retraction letter looks ok to me.

Anonymous said...

As long as I had not said anything in my own letter that I now know to be inaccurate, but had simply stated things based on my relationship with the candidate, I think I'd stop without doing anything further. It sounds like this person likely fooled many people, and thus the letter writer is in good company.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

If the evidence for unethical behavior was really compelling, then the ethical thing to do is send a retraction. A brief statement such as FSP suggested seems reasonable. The retraction and any subsequent written or verbal correspondence should adhere carefully to the facts. If the person who exhibited unethical behavior hasn't found another position, the retraction will be of benefit to the search committee. If he/she has found a position, the retraction will be a useful heads-up to the new department and also serve as evidence of a preexisting pattern of behavior, should the new department need to take action to fire this person. This sounds like a person would could do harm. Innocent people might be spared by a timely warning.
Agree with FSP that the writer of the recommendation did nothing wrong in sending the original letter.

Matt Welsh said...

Seems to me that it's the job of the department doing the hiring to conduct due diligence. The responsibility of the letter writer is simply to give their good faith assessment of the individual; it is not their job to make the decision about whether the person is hired. So, I see no value in retracting the letter - if the department needs additional feedback on the candidate they can ask.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely would not send a retraction. It opens you up to the possibility of libel, and short of that, it keeps you tangled up in a bad situation. Treat a recommendation like a bullet: Your aim was as accurate as it could be at the time you pulled the trigger, and there's nothing you can do about it now that it's in flight.

Becca said...

There are a few possible motivations for retracting the letter:
1) discovery of a factual statement made in the letter is false (write a second letter explaining that; the equivalent of an errata notice for a figure)
2) discovery that the general positive 'enthusiastically recommend' is no longer applicable, because of factual data that your letter did not mention
(write a letter saying you can no longer recommend someone since X fact has come to light; the equivalent of a paper retraction)
3) discovery of 'credible information' that this person is no longer someone you can trust and want to work with, who really shouldn't have gotten the job
(this is NOT a good reason to retract the letter- for one thing, if you had facts it would fall under 1) or 2) above; for another your ethical responsibility was to provide a letter, not offer a job)

Anonymous said...

I think recommendation letters are written on the basis of facts and personal experience rather then some rumors.

sib said...

I would go with the option of a second letter that clearly stated the need to revise some opinions, based on newly available facts (not rumors).. not a complete retractal though, just tempered enthusiasm.

And then I would take a deep breath and compose an email to the person I recommended stating that I have sent a second email to these places revising my recommendation in the light of facts that only recently became available to me. No matter how uncouth the person in question is, s/he has the right to know that your letter may affect them adversely and if possible defend themselves or ask someone else for a letter the next time around.

Aria said...

It seems to make sense to find out the official facts of why a person lost their job before writing them a letter of recommendation. It does not sound like the referee is guarding their reputation very well from the start if they do not seek out this very relevant information. As they say: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Anonymous said...

I personally think there should not be a retraction. The letter was honest and correct, and provided some valuable information; this person really can work well in a scientific setting.

One thing the reader might do is inform the university of the person's unethical conduct, without retracting the letter. If there is no hard proof though, then the reader could just be wrong and shouldn't say anything in my opinion.

The Letter Writer said...

Thanks for blogging this, FSP.

It does not sound like the referee is guarding their reputation very well from the start if they do not seek out this very relevant information. As they say: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Believe me, I will be more careful in the future. All I can say in my defense is that people in the know refused for a long time to say anything at all concerning "a confidential personnel matter." Which is exactly what you'd expect them to say about a person who did wrong, but is also what you'd expect them to say about a person who was wronged.

Having re-read my letter, I see nothing that is untrue, since on the subject of professionalism I referred only to things that I knew from first-hand observation at the time.

I think my best course of action is to do nothing for now, since what I signed was true when it was signed. Also, I am now learning that some of this person's misdeeds may soon be a matter of public record. At that point, a new employer will have better sources of information than a letter writer who went from naivete to risking a libel suit.

John Vidale said...

Awkward situation.

IMO, if ample time for a hiring has passed and the writer knows no one at the school, I'd move on.

If the writer knows a decision still remains to be made, write the letter FSP recommends.

A lot of gray area here depending on if the writer's rep is threatened by an inaccurate letter, if there exists a convenient intermediary to carry a message, if there's a way to ascertain the current status of the search, etc..

Basically, FSP is on the money with her response.

a physicist said...

Clarissa wrote:

Of course, I would only ever agree to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague I know so well that very few surprises can be possible.

I disagree with this idea (although I'd love to hear more... might make a good FSP post?) I've had students come to me who are pre-med and need a recommendation letter from a physics professor; some med schools have this requirement. But, they were one of 300 students I taught that semester. Maybe I can't say much about them -- and I'll tell the student that -- but as long as I have no bad things to say, I can at least write a short letter to satisfy the arbitrary med school requirement.

Even regarding the idea of writing letters for "colleagues" rather than students, I would tend to want to help someone. I definitely agree with the other comments on this, that letters are best restricted to one's own first-hand knowledge. So for colleagues I know poorly, my letter would be much shorter.

My main point is that I don't feel I have the luxury to only write recommendation letters for people who are extremely well known to me. But given that, it's possible to write a letter you can stand by, even for someone you know less well.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who gets telephone follow-ups from the review committee when I write a letter of recommendation?

More often than not I have someone telephoning me to discuss the candidate in more detail, ask specific questions. (And, I suspect, make sure the letter is bona fide.)

This dilemma is described in necessarily vague terms, but barring something like an actual assault charge, I can't imagine an instance in which someone could write a letter of reference, and then trip over themselves retracting it, without coming across as ridiculous.

However, if the referer receives a follow-up telephone call, she could use that opportunity to introduce a more doubtful or distant tone. (E.g., "I've worked on one or two projects with this person and never had a problem." "I've known this person a short time, relatively speaking, but things have been fine.") But, really, only do this if you've got first-hand evidence that this person's done something outrageous!

Anonymous said...

A friend and co-worker is, if he is a friend, first and foremost a FRIEND.
you don't stab friends in the back - don't you?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Treat a recommendation like a bullet: Your aim was as accurate as it could be at the time you pulled the trigger, and there's nothing you can do about it now that it's in flight.

Yep. The original letter-writer should not involve herself any further in this.

Anonymous said...

Although it would be nice to only write letters for people whom we know well, in truth it is sometimes necessary to write letters for people we do not know at all. Case in point, I was recently asked by a person in my field of research to write a letter in support of their application for US permanent residency. I do not know this person at all, but do know of their work. I wrote a letter explaining the importance of their work to the field. Now, it's true that this person may be completely unethical and the work may have been falsified, etc. But my statements in the letter were factual based upon my reading of the science. So if the work were later retracted I would be upset, of course, but would not feel the need to retract my letter.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't necessarily retract the letter but I would inform the hiring committee of the new information that has come to light since my recommendation had been written. I would say that I still stand by what I wrote in the letter - since that presumably is based on my own personal and positive interactions with this colleague and what has happened since then does not alter history. But at the same time I have now learned new information that the committee should be aware of and take into consideration along with my glowing letter of recommendation.

Does this sound like a cop-out?

Bagelsan said...

If the letter writer said something untrue, like "this wonderful person has never done [unethical thing]!" then I think that particular thing should be retracted. If it's all just a description of the writer's personal experiences then I think a retraction is inappropriate.

The letter writer is just being asked for their opinion/POV, not to act as some sort of unpaid private eye who reports every rumor they hear to the letter's recipients. If the writer hasn't personally done anything wrong, I think all the various wrongdoings of others are not their business.

sciencenonscience said...

I say: people, just chill. Cause you don't know. 'I heard from some guy that the rumors are true!' Really? Was there a court where both sides could go over what actually happened in an open (albeit flawed) process? Two sides to the story. You wrote the rec in good faith; if this guy is such a douche, he'll get his just desserts.If you're going to retract, the ethical thing is to first talk to the person you wrote the rec for.

The first principle of writing recommendations should be: DO NO HARM. Cause you just don't know that much about anyone, and presuming that you do is arrogance.