Caution Required in Writing Recommendations

By Lindsey Novak

December 12, 2019 4 min read

Q: A colleague asked me for a letter of recommendation. I know the person through my job, but I don't know the quality of work or the details of what he/she does. Because of my lack of knowledge and direct experience working with him/her, I don't feel comfortable writing one. I said I would but haven't gotten around to it, and he/she has asked me twice so far. I feel I can't say no, but I honestly don't know what I would say in a recommendation since we haven't worked together. What do I tell him/her?

A: Tell the person the truth: you cannot legitimately recommend someone you have no knowledge of regarding the body and quality of work performed. If you wrote a recommendation letter, you could be called and asked how you two worked together and how you came to know the work product.

Ask yourself if you are willing to lie for the person, because that is what you would be doing. Ask yourself if your word means anything to you. Because when you give a recommendation, you are giving your word to the employer that what you say is true, and the value of your word becomes your reputation.

A recommendation represents your experience interacting with the person. It may include the person's knowledge of a particular field or position, work product and performance, accomplishments, success rate, communication skills, teamwork, leadership ability and whatever other abilities that person possesses and exercises on the job.

The company may not call you at first regarding your recommendation, but if the employee turns out to be a liability rather than just a disappointment in the position, you may receive a call questioning the information you provided in your letter. Helping an unqualified candidate get an undeserved job will not only be bad for the company but also damaging to your reputation.

One letter from such a company told of an employee with a glowing work history who proceeded to embezzle funds. Management said it later discovered the employee was guilty of the same behavior at his previous company, but that company didn't want the bad press so it let the person go without pressing charges. In such situations, companies are often guided by their legal counsel to not reveal anything negative for fear of a lawsuit; the financial drain and potential aftermath of charging an employee with a criminal act is thought not to be worth the legal battle.

Unfortunately, withholding negative information can be damaging to the next employer. Large employers may have too much to lose to risk revealing the experience it had with an employee. You, as an individual, are not faced with the same potential threat. Value your word because that forms your reputation, and refuse to give false recommendations for anyone.

Email career and life coach: [email protected] with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit and for past columns, see

Photo credit: Free-Photos at Pixabay

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