Monday Mornings with Madison

Recommendations: To Give Or Not To Give

It used to be that letters of recommendation were typically requested only by employees from bosses and from teachers by graduating seniors trying to gain admission to college.  Social media has changed all that.  Today, anyone can give anyone else a recommendation and many do.  Coworker to coworker.  Boss to employee.  Employee to Boss.  Vendor to Customer.  Customer to Vendor.  Manager to another Manager.  Teacher to University.  University to Employer.  Recommendations are everywhere (mostly because of the amazing power of a third-party endorsement).  Indeed, LinkedIn recently added a new tool for recommendations.  Besides allowing one person to post a written recommendation for another person, now LI also allows one person to endorse the specific skills of another person.  This can be invaluable for someone presenting him or herself as an ‘authority’ in a particular topic or area.

Last week, we considered how to go about asking for a recommendation.  However, the flip side of the coin is that there many issues to consider when giving a recommendation.  Should you give a recommendation to anyone who asks?  What if the person requesting one really doesn’t deserve it?  For instance, what if the person requesting a recommendation is a nice person but has really bad work habits?  And what about the number of recommendations requested?  For the top leaders of companies and managers of big departments, giving one person a recommendation on LinkedIn might lead 50 others to ask as well.  What is the protocol for deciding when and how to give recommendations?  To give or not to give recommendations, that is the question.

When To Say Yes

For those with legal concerns about giving a letter of recommendation, worry not.  A general “To Whom It May Concern” reference letter is not considered legally binding even if it includes a slightly embellished description of a person’s qualities.  (Of course, it is not okay to attest to completely fabricated titles, responsibilities or skills.)  That said, it is acceptable – perhaps even expected – for business professionals to give recommendations.  The willingness to give a genuine recommendation for a valued employee, coworker or colleague is seen as a professional courtesy.  Any employer who refuses to give any recommendations – even to the most dedicated employees who have performed top notch work – may gain an industry-wide reputation for being ungrateful and insensitive.  That is a good way to alienate top talent from joining the company in the future.  The goal then is to be selective in giving recommendations and sincere in what is said.

What To Say

When asked to write a letter of recommendation, be honest in your assessment.  Put yourself in the reader’s position and consider what you would want to know if you were reading the letter. If there are concerns about specific areas, be up front with the requester. There should be no surprises.  Also, never lie or over-embellish a recommendation.  A recommendation says as much about the giver of the recommendation as it does about the person being recommended.  Remember that a recommendation about someone that proves be totally false discredits not only the person recommended, but also the person who gave the recommendation.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Be honest about your feelings, intentions, and concerns.
  • If you are not sure what to write, ask the requester to provide some bullet points that he/she might want you to address.
  • Find out when the requestor needs the letter and be sensitive to deadlines.

Here is a simple format:


  • Introduce yourself as the recommender. State your professional position, how you know the applicant, the length of your relationship, and any other pertinent information to build your credibility as a knowledgeable contributor.
  • Provide an overview of your general impressions of the applicant.


  • Cover one or two exceptional qualities of the applicant
  • Use specific examples to show how you observed each quality
  • Address qualities in order of importance
  • Keep the body of the letter to two or three paragraphs


  • Confirm that the applicant would be a desirable employee, adding any other comments you feel appropriate.
  • Encourage the reader to contact you for additional information or with any questions.
  • Don’t forget to personally sign the letter.

Okay To Say No

There may be times when it just does not feel right to give a recommendation to a person requesting it.  You may feel you don’t know the person well enough.  Or you may feel the person would be better served with another recommender closer to that person’s position in the chain of command. Whatever the case may be, it is okay to say “No” to the request.  Don’t feel badly about saying no. It is better to give no recommendation at all than it is to give a wishy-washy one or even make negative comments (especially on a social media site which is visible for all the world to see).  Here are some ways to handle the awkward conversation of saying “no” to a recommendation request:


Superficial relationship


“I am sorry, but I don’t feel I know you well enough.” or

“I haven’t worked with you long enough to provide you an accurate recommendation.”


Inferior skills / Sub-standard worker


“I don’t feel I’m the right person (or best person) to write you a recommendation.

If the person insists, gently say “My integrity and professional brand is on the line with each recommendation I make, and I simply don’t feel comfortable writing you a recommendation.”

Setting A Policy

For those who are simply too busy to spend time writing many recommendations, it may make sense to create a personal or business policy. This can be especially useful to company owners, top leadership and C-suite executives who get many recommendation requests, especially on social media sites such as LinkedIn.  The policy can be something like this:

Due to the volume of requests for recommendations my office receives, I have adopted the following policy for giving recommendations:

  1. Recommendations are given to individuals who have reported directly to me in the chain of command. Other valued staff should request a recommendation from a supervisor within that person’s chain of command.
  2. Recommendations are written for direct reports that have given notice of leaving the company and are leaving on good terms.
  3. Recommendations are given for those with positive reviews and an excellent work history.

Those that meet these criteria should submit a request for a recommendation to my office and we will process the request within five business days.

In today’s recommendation-driven world, it is okay to say “yes” and also, at times, to say “no” to requests for recommendations.  There is a happy balance that business people should find between giving none and giving too many recommendations.  The higher up the hierarchy, the more selective and discriminating one should be in deciding who should get a letter of recommendation.  After all, one’s own reputation is also at stake with each recommendation given.  The best approach is to set a fair and logical policy and implement it consistently in order to avoid accusations of impartiality.

Quote of the Week

“Praise, like gold and diamonds, owes its value only to its scarcity.” Samuel Johnson


© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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