While reviewing applicants for a position, I noticed a disclosure in a letter of recommendation that is potentially unethical. I'm sure this happens from time to time - something like "Jane Doe's contributions are especially impressive because her husband is constantly busy working at a hedge fund and she has small three children, two of whom have cystic fibrosis". On the one hand, that does put her work in context and make it more impressive in some respects. However, if there are no hedge funds near my university or the local medical system isn't well developed to treat such a complicated condition, it'd be hard not to let that disclosure influence my or my department's thinking. Sometimes these disclosures are intentional, but I don't believe the one I noticed (which is not the scenario outlined above) is.

My first reaction is that I should take the disclosure as a positive if it is in fact a positive (maybe we have lots of hedge funds nearby and a cystic fibrosis research center, so Jane would consider stooping down to our department's level!) and try to ignore it if it is a negative. On the other hand, perhaps it would be best to check directly with the writer and ask what they intended by making a disclosure. If the disclosure is unintentional, this gives the writer a chance to update their letter.

Clearly, the approach taken should vary depending on the details of the case, but are there other options I'm not considering?

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    It seems you haven't consider the potential legal ramifications, especially if you plan to contact the writers of the letters. I'm in US, and direct considerations of anything other than merit can potentially land my university and hence myself in legal troubles.
    – user39093
    Feb 12, 2021 at 19:34
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    Your title is very confusing because you are not asking if it is ethical to disclose something. Feb 12, 2021 at 20:38
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    My reading of "husband works at a hedge fund" was that you should hire this person because they are so wealthy they can survive on the puny salaries you are offering. Feb 12, 2021 at 20:39
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    Presumably, the candidate knows their own situation better than you do. You shouldn't preemptively reject them because you suspect your local hospital isn't good enough -- you should ignore that information and let them decide for themselves later.
    – knzhou
    Feb 12, 2021 at 21:51
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    @knzhou For the case in question, I agree with you. I'm more asking, "are there things I can do to address possible negative outcomes from the letter writer's disclosure elsewhere"
    – Zach H
    Feb 13, 2021 at 14:44

3 Answers 3


In your position I would (try to) ignore the extraneous information.

Perhaps well after the hiring decision is made you could say something to the letter writer in an informal way. I don't know whether I would. A lot depends on the tone and the details that you have (correctly) disguised.

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    I can't tell, from the information given, whether the letter writer was being helpful or trying to sabotage the candidate. This seems the only reasonable solution, though un-seeing isn't really possible.
    – Buffy
    Feb 12, 2021 at 21:16
  • In the actual case that inspired this question, I think they were trying to be helpful but were unwittingly sabotaging the applicant, which is what distressed me about the situation. If I knew the letter writer personally, I'd reach out and ask whether they had considered the negative implications of their disclosure, but that seems risky with a stranger.
    – Zach H
    Feb 13, 2021 at 14:48
  • @Buffy For a situation like this one, where you don't know if it's intended to be helpful or not, I'd air on the side of helpful. "This is someone who works extremely hard and make stuff happen and be successful even with a 5/5/3 teaching load, advising half the department, doing community outreach, all while meeting your insane two articles a year plus a monograph requirements to make tenure". Feb 14, 2021 at 18:48

Ignore it. Speaking of unethical behavior, I think it’s borderline unethical to draw conclusions from the irrelevant information in the letter, which are quite obviously unwarranted, the way you are doing in your example. Many people work remotely these days, why would you assume anything about the relevance of there being or not being hedge funds in your area? And what do you know about what kind of hospital this job candidate’s children need? It seems rather presumptuous to me to think that your deductive powers are so amazing that you can make useful predictions about someone’s future job performance based on such tidbits of information. There is a real risk that this attitude will cause harm and lead you to reject a perfectly qualified candidate, or to accept someone less than perfectly qualified.

Judge the candidate based on her professional achievements. And leave to letter writers the agency to decide what to include in their letters. They won’t get it right every time, but your meddling certainly won’t help.

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    Drawing conclusions is not unethical. Acting on those conclusions might be. Feb 13, 2021 at 5:25
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    Cystic fibrosis is a major, deadly health problem, not "trivial." Feb 13, 2021 at 5:26
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    @AnonymousPhysicist good point. Of course, I did not mean to imply that there was anything trivial about cystic fibrosis, I meant that it’s trivial in the sense of being essentially a piece of personal gossip that has no relevance to the person’s job candidacy. Edited to remove that word in any case.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 13, 2021 at 5:29
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    Saying that it is "essentially a piece of personal gossip that has no relevance to the person’s job candidacy" seems a bit too strong. That a person is able to perform well under stress is certainly relevant to assessing how they might perform in the future. The problem is that the relevance is hard to assess in a case like this, and hard to separate from things which aren't relevant for the job (such that they are a mother at all). Feb 13, 2021 at 14:28
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    @ZachH it’s a futile exercise to go around giving ethics advice to any random person you see committing small acts of tactlessness or incompetence, particularly people you never met and have no professional relationship with. You will antagonize many people if you go that route and achieve nothing positive while you’re doing it. If someone doesn’t have the sensibility to know what’s reasonable to mention in a letter of reference, they will make some other similar mistake again next time regardless of what you tell them. Basically, your intentions are good but you’d be wasting your time.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 13, 2021 at 16:47

The job applicant's family is irrelevant to your hiring decisions. Always ignore information about the applicant's family, no matter where it comes from.

Asking the letter writer for more irrelevant information, or criticizing the letter writer, both seem rude or at least not helpful.

  • 6
    I'm not addressing your local hiring laws, which may tie your hands here. Feb 12, 2021 at 20:44

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