Writing an Effective Letter of Recommendation
Writing an Effective Letter of Recommendation
ADVANCE Contributing Editor
With the current job market in allied health, most new graduates won't have a problem landing a job. But if they want some help in opening the door of their choice, a letter of recommendation may provide the leverage they need.
According to Susan Whitney, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, letters of recommendation can be effective, depending on their source. Future employers may value a letter from a clinician over that of a professor, for example.
Joanne Eisenhardt, PhD, MBA, associate professor at Widener University, Chester, PA, recommended that practitioners write letters for people with whom they've had positive interactions.
"In order to write a letter of recommendation, there needs to be direct or indirect contact," stated Ellen Bonk, MBA, an allied health director at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.
"For instance," she said, "I have 40 staff working under me, some of whom I would not be comfortable with commenting on their clinical skills. I could write a letter for them, but in the letter I would indicate that I do not have firsthand knowledge of their clinical skills but that the supervisors to whom they reported had positive comments."
"Letters can say a lot about somebody," said Dr. Whitney. "There are people who I love to write letters of recommendation for because those letters write themselves."
For others, she said, "I could certainly write a letter, but it wouldn't glow off the paper." She would not author a letter for those she feels "really have some problems and whatever I say or write will not help them get a job."
At Bonk's facility, the human resources policy states that clinicians are not required to write letters of recommendation. If prospective employers want information on a medical center employee, therapists can refer them to the personnel department.
"The information they get from personnel is very sketchy, such as a job description and attendance," she explained. "They don't go into detail as far as personal records, what was involved in the job, and if the person was a good or bad employee."
Bonk said writing letters of recommendation is a "comfort level issue" for many. If the request for a letter comes from a good employee or student, "it is no big deal. But if you are uncomfortable writing the letter, the problem becomes how to say no."
She has instructed the supervisors on her staff that if they are uncomfortable with a request, they can fall back on the human resources policy.
Bonk added that many requests are not for letters but in the form of "Can I use your name?" or "Can someone call you?" That puts the student or clinician moving to a new job at risk, she said, "because they don't know what you are going to say when someone calls. Therapists should be aware of what you think of them before they ask that question."
Before Dr. Whitney writes a letter of recommendation or receives a phone call for a reference, she asks the student or therapist for an expanded resume so she knows what they have done. If the person is a student she has had in class, she will pull their folder to review their history.
"If they want a real good letter of recommendation, that is the kind of information I need," she said. "As things start to get more competitive, therapists are going to need good letters."
When she knows that a student or therapist has good skills but is shy and won't interview well, Dr. Whitney will indicate in a letter or by phone that the individual may not make a strong first impression but deserves a chance because his or her clinical skills are excellent.
She and Bonk agreed that the most important message to relay in a written or verbal recommendation is that the author would hire or rehire the person in question.
An especially important point to make in a letter regards the person's interpersonal skills. "No matter where you work, you have to be a part of the team," said Dr. Whitney.
Grades do not have to be mentioned in a letter of recommendation for a student, Dr. Whitney noted. Instead, the letter writer should point out the individual's unique characteristics that would be of benefit in a clinical setting, such as creativity.
Bonk said letters of recommendation for practitioners should address issues related to basic work ethics, such as being committed to their job, and a brief job description. "All this should be included in a brief one- to two-page letter," she said.
To some extent the burden of what should be included in a letter or phone conversation is on the pro-spective employer who is requesting the recommendation, Dr. Eisenhardt observed. Failure to ask the right questions or request specific information may result in the individual not getting a complete picture of how the person would fit into a particular facility or setting.
"Most of us are not eager to give someone a bad report," she said, "but there are certain things about the person we just cannot recommend. If we are invited to comment, we will. But if I am not invited to comment, I won't offer the information."
When writing a letter of recommendation that is not favorable to an individual, practitioners should be aware of the potential legal repercussions. According to Ron Scott, JD, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, "Potential litigation over recommendations may include defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Health care professionals should take certain precautions when writing a letter of recommendation.
They should require a written request for information from a pro-spective employer or education program and a written release from the candidate before releasing any information. Secondly, they should "respond to requests for information only in writing and maintain file copies of correspondence for at least the length of time of the state statute of limitations for legal actions," he advised.