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Ask an Ethicist: Serving as a reference (or not)

In preparation for Fall Career Days at Penn State, we are publishing questions over the next week that will discuss internships, interviewing, résumés, and reference writing. This first question centers around writing reference letters. Most of us have either served as a reference for someone or asked someone to serve as a reference for us. But what happens when someone is asked to serve as a reference for a colleague or student and for whatever reason, the individual is not comfortable serving in this capacity? How should someone respond to the request?

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: What should you do when someone asks you to write a letter of recommendation or to serve as a reference and for whatever reason you are not comfortable serving in this capacity and you are not sure how to respond to the request? 

Jennifer EuryAn ethicist responds: Since many, if not most of us, have either served as a reference for someone or asked someone to serve as a reference for us, I will consider this ethical dilemma from a couple of perspectives.

Requests from your colleagues 

Often, individuals will call upon their current and former colleagues to serve as a reference when they are applying for a new position. Sometimes these individuals are employees who report to you, others are individuals in your work unit, and still others are individuals with whom you only served on a committee or worked on a project. For a number of reasons, you may not feel comfortable serving as a reference. Perhaps, the individual is not a high-achieving employee, or does not possess the skillset required of the new position. Or, possibly, you know something about their prospective employer or work unit, and you do not believe that the individual would be a good fit. 

If you are not comfortable serving as a reference in such a situation, you are facing an ethical dilemma, “a situation in which two or more ‘right’ values are in conflict” (Treviño & Nelson, 2014, p. 39). It’s likely that, in this case, values such as honesty and integrity are in conflict with values such as kindness, compassion, and loyalty. You know that you do not feel comfortable providing a positive recommendation for the individual. But, you also want to seem helpful to your colleague, and maybe you regret having to say to the individual that you will not serve as a reference. The truth is, you are not doing a service to the individual (or your own reputation) by providing a mediocre recommendation, or worst yet, lying to the prospective employer about the individual. So, what should you do?

First, it is important to consider what the consequences are for you (and your organization), the individual seeking a reference, and the prospective employer, if you agree to serve as a reference or if you choose to decline the request to serve as a reference. You should consider the decision that would produce the greatest good (the greatest benefits and least harms to the most people). Second, you should consider what you would want someone to do for you, assuming you would want someone to be honest with you in a similar situation. Finally, you should consider what a person of integrity would do in this type of situation.

In the end, if you are uncomfortable serving as a reference, a person of integrity would have the difficult but honest conversation with the colleague to explain (as kindly as possible) that you feel you must decline because you are not the best person to serve as a reference (either because you can’t provide a positive one or because you don’t know the person well enough or some other reason). You will be doing what is honest and doing it in a caring way. You will also be doing what is best for the most stakeholders.  

Requests from students

In addition to requests from your colleagues, students will call upon their former instructors and academic and student organization advisers to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school or a letter of nomination for an award, as well as to serve as a reference for an internship or job opportunity. Again, sometimes you do not know a student very well, or perhaps, he or she was not an outstanding performer in your class. You believe that it would be best to decline the invitation to serve as a reference, but the student shares that you are the only instructor or adviser that he or she really knows. Again, you find yourself feeling uncomfortable with the situation and not exactly sure how to respond to the student’s request. It’s likely that values such as honesty and integrity are in conflict with values such as kindness and compassion. So, what should you do? 

Again, it is important to consider the harms and benefits for accepting or declining the invitation to serve as a reference for the student. You might meet with the student, to share with him or her, face-to-face, that you are not the best person to serve as a reference. You should explain, with compassion, your rationale for declining. You may also want to help the student to brainstorm other possibilities. 

In the future, when someone asks you to serve as a reference, ask the person to send you supporting documents (i.e., resume, their application letter) and ask for time to consider the request. Ask for the details about the position or opportunity to which the individual is applying, and consider your own interactions with the individual and how your involvement would help or hinder in the application/nomination process. Also, consider the amount of time you have to write a meaningful letter of recommendation. After all, your willingness to serve as a reference or to write a letter of recommendation signifies your honest endorsement of the individual and your own reputation is on the line. Finally, it is not ethical to ask a student to write their own letter of recommendation for you to review and sign. If you don’t have time, don’t know enough about the person, or don’t feel you can write your own letter for other reasons, it’s best to decline.

Treviño, L. K. & Nelson, K. A. (2014). Managing business ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right. Sixth edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Jennifer L. Eury, Ph.D. is the Honor and Integrity Director and Instructor in Management in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State. She is responsible for the college's honor and integrity initiatives, including marketing and communications, training and orientation, and policy execution and implementation. She also teaches courses in business ethics and leadership and change in organizations.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.