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In my field (computer science), students often get jobs through referrals, where faculty members pass on the student's resume to someone employed at the company the student wants to work at. In an annual talk and throughout the year, I advise my students to use referrals if at all possible rather than applying online. I accept LinkedIn requests from my students and encourage them to ask me for referrals.

There is currently a student in our small program who has negatively impressed all of the professors he has taken classes from, as well as many of the students. He is not the weakest CS student, but, in my opinion, he is the worst at getting along with others and behaving professionally.

I am wondering what to do when he asks me to refer him to companies (which I expect him to do). In the past, when a weak student has asked for a referral, I have said that I don't think they're ready for the job in question [due to their technical level], recommended that they ask a different professor, or refer them without an explicit recommendation (e.g., "Jane Doe asked me to refer her to SlackJaw.") I am hesitant to do the latter for this student because I don't want to hurt my or my school's reputation by putting forward a candidate who behaves inappropriately. I also dread his reaction if I decline to refer him for a job. I expect that he would get angry and allege persecution. (I'm a tenured full professor, so my job wouldn't be in danger if he complained about me, but I'd rather not get in that situation.)

In any event, I don't want to hurt his chances of getting a job. I'm happy to give him job-seeking advice and help him with his resume, but I don't want to recommend him.

What should I do if he asks me for a referral?

  • Option 1 (the hard way): just tell the truth. Don’t want to recommend you because I was not impressed by your attitude and professional behavior. This may open an honest feedback conversation and a lesson learned for life (or not). Option 2 (not my preference): praise him to hell. Requiters and HR professionals know how to read references and read between the lines. They look for a profile. E.g. you can praise someone as very result oriented or as an excellent team worker. – user93911 Jun 23 '18 at 9:52
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    What about "don't"? If you cannot give a good referral, don't do any. – Oleg Lobachev Jun 23 '18 at 19:34
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Why do you dread his reaction? You have no responsibility of giving anyone a referral. I doubt "this professor did not write me a referral" would stand as an excuse to allege persecution in any tribunal. Don't get bullied by a student, just plainly refuse to do a referal if you are not up for it.

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    I agree, none of my fellow students at any point in student life felt entitled to a letter of recommendation. There was always some trepidation and a lot of groundwork done before approaching a professor, and it was not unheard of to hear 'sorry, no'. – user153812 Jun 23 '18 at 6:37
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    I dread his reaction because I fear he'd bring his father in to argue for him (something he has hinted at before about a different matter). You're right that I shouldn't let my fear get in the way of being honest and using my power responsibly. – Embarrassed tenured professor Jun 23 '18 at 17:34
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    Agree. Further, I would avoid debating the point with the student -- explain your reasoning and then end the meeting. Any further whining (or intervention by the father!) can be met with "I have already shared my thoughts on this matter" and a firm request to leave. – cag51 Jun 23 '18 at 21:15
  • @embarrassed the way I see it, the student can bring the pope to the table, they will win nothing. If they force you to write one (I can't see how they would) you'd write a bad recommendation letter. The student can't be so shortsighted as to not realise that. As cag51 says, do not provide explanation. Just say you won't do it. – Ander Biguri Jun 24 '18 at 14:01
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There are ways of writing a recommendation :

1) this student attended my course on snail migration in semester X.

2) this student attended my course on snail migration in semester X and was always on time , with the homework completed.

3) this student attended my course on snail migration in semester X, was always on time, always came prepared and actively and positively contributed to each session.

One other method is the “omission” method ie if timekeeping is not mentioned at all in the reference - then that says they are often late. Some do not like to put negative comments and just saying “attended” compared to “regularly attended” or “always attended” can speak volumes...

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    This is true, however I think its slightly dishonest (or not completely ethical) to write a "bad" recommendation letter to a student without letting them know, somehow. If I'd asked for a recommendation letter and only got 1) I'd be pissed if whoever did it did not tell me "sorry I am unable to write a good recommendation letter to you". – Ander Biguri Jun 23 '18 at 10:41
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    I have written exactly that and given it personally to the student saying “given your attendance I can’t put anything else” - the student agreed - however whether they used it is a different question... I also have a responsibility to the person(s) reading the reference... – Solar Mike Jun 23 '18 at 11:04
  • I do also agree that this seems slightly unethical. Modt students can presumably not estimate if this is bad and how bad it really is. – Udank Jul 6 '18 at 16:22
  • @Udank I have had discussions with the HR people doing the interview and making the decision about a student directly so I have to back up what I have put in the reference which can vary from "don't let this one get away" to "you will need to watch them 24/24" ... – Solar Mike Jul 6 '18 at 21:18
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Have you considered that this student may be oblivious to their problems, not realizing they exist and hence not able to take any action to solve this? I have seen this a number of times, where nobody would like to work together with a certain student, but nobody tells the student in question this, and hence the student is not even aware that people feel this way.

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    I have spoken to him directly and indirectly (by addressing the entire class), but he seems to think his behavior is beyond reproach and that any criticism of him is wrong. I feel sorry for him at times. I guess this situation is his problem, not mine. – Embarrassed tenured professor Jun 23 '18 at 17:38
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Is there a formalized student feedback mechanism in your program? E.g., an annual progress report where faculty give students a written assessment of the progress and performance so far, ideally with concrete goals. If so, referring to previous feedback the student has gotten might help present the situation as further removed from any conflict he may perceive to exist between the two of you?

If no such mechanism exists, it might not help with the current situation but could aid in similar future circumstances. Even if you think you've communicated your issues with him clearly, the fact that you suspect he will still ask for a referral makes me suspect that it has not been clear to him (even perhaps if it would have been to somebody else).

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