Recommendations – Your Credibility on the Line

Posted By: Tony Bagshaw AASPA Blog,

“92% of respondents reported that a positive recommendation from a friend,
family member, or someone they trust is the biggest influence on whether they buy a product or service.”
~Paul M Rand

Recently I was asked to serve as a reference for a small business service I had used.  While I was unsatisfied with the service, the proprietor was associated with a friend (I know, I know … don’t mix friends and business) and the decision to say “no” was difficult.

The only upside of the situation was it caused me to think more deeply about how I make these decisions and I’m hopeful my metacognitive journey benefits others.  While recommending a business is less common, as veteran professionals we are often asked to recommend (or not) candidates seeking important positions.

I like the following definition of a recommendation: 
a suggestion or proposal as to the best course of action, especially one put forward by an authoritative body.

Let’s agree on a couple of things before we get into the actual framework.  Based on the above definition you are making a “suggestion”.  You are saying, “Yes I would do this” or “I would not do this”.  You can and should be held accountable for that suggestion as it will have a real impact on the other organization.  In our profession, the lives of students are impacted.  That can and should be taken seriously.  Additionally, you are an “authoritative body”.  If the person applying or the entity potentially hiring said individual did not respect your opinion you simply wouldn’t be involved.

The Difficulty in Recommendations
The difficulty in recommendations is that the humans to which they are attached are very nuanced.  Beware your own biases such as recency bias (recent events overshadow prior events that should influence the final judgment).  Generally, I think of them in three tiers.

Tier 1 – This individual has my “unequivocal” recommendation.  Thankfully, this has been the most frequent occurrence in my professional life, and these are a joy to write.  For what it is worth, I normally use the below questions as my framework for the contents of my recommendation. 

Tier 2 – I’ll write this but I’m not sure I should or I’m not writing this and I’m probably going to lose a relationship over my refusal.  These are the tough ones.  Tread carefully!  When I think these through please know I normally, and at times painfully, push them into Tier 3 (see below).

Tier 3 – I’m not doing this.  If this person is using me as a reference, they are at best desperate and at worst trying to use my credibility to mislead others. Thankfully these are rare.  The easy out here is always, “I don’t feel I know your professional skills sufficiently to write or provide this recommendation and I feel you would be better served using someone with more detailed knowledge of your skills”.  To be fair, people do change, get better and thrive in other environments.  Additionally, you have the evidence you have, and you are assuredly missing puzzle pieces.  It is possible your evidence is not the best evidence of their potential in the new organization.  If that’s the case let someone else write the recommendation.

Criteria for Tier 1
So how might we go about making these decisions?  Below is the criteria I use for Tier 1.  I hope it helps!

             Question 1:  Is the person bright / inquisitive / smart?  I understand these terms are not always interchangeable and one could accept different evidence for each.  But generally, when working with someone, you get a real sense of this.  Are they constantly reading?  Do they come up with new, viable ideas?  Do they understand how the system impacts the individual and the reverse?  Do they think across disciplines?  Do they understand how the work at hand fits into the organizations Mission, Vision, and Moral Purpose?  Can they apply concepts in a new context?  Do they, “Not make the same mistake twice”?

            Question 2:  Is the person hungry / a hard worker / dependable?  My experience has been the best people in every profession work harder than everyone else.  If they are not at work it is a rare occurrence, there is a very good reason, and you likely were well informed as to the reason.  Again, there is an evidence base that can be collected through things like early arrival, stellar attendance, late night emails with new ideas, early morning texts with new ideas, deadlines being met, and less time at the infamous water cooler.  You get the picture.

            Question 3:  Is the person great with people / great for culture / a genuinely good human?  Do they seem to collect advocates or detractors in their professional life?  The evidence here typically takes the form of everyone wanting the person on their team (or everyone wants to work on their team if they are the leader), giving away more of the credit than they deserve, taking more of the blame than they deserve, and generally making everyone around them better for their presence.  Stealing an idea from our colleagues at Gallup, do not underestimate the power of these individual do drive the engagement levels of their colleagues in the right direction!

            Question 4:  Do I have sufficient evidence to know numbers 1-3 to be truth (see the out clause I referenced above in Tier 3)?  Have you seen them hold their own in multiple very complex, multidimensional situations?  Most people can work hard in spurts (or when the boss is watching) but does their fire burn internally and consistently?  Can you hand them something and never worry about it get completed on time, with high quality, and in a manner that creates enthusiasm for the work?  Most people are good colleagues when everything is going their way.  Do they handle great success and real failure with equal dignity?  In the end, is their journey toward a better version of themselves a lifetime commitment or a hobby that fades in and out?

 I hope some of this resonates and helps.  May you benefit from my dilemma!