This question is a bit different from this question: What to do if asked to write a letter of recommendation for a weak candidate?

Instead of not knowing the student well enough, I know the student too well that I think he is not a suitable candidate. I have a good relationship with the student, it is just that I know I cannot comment highly on this application as he lack one skill that is particularly important for that post... I have suggested to him to try something else but he seems to be very keen in applying for the post. I cannot turn down his request because he said he could not find anyone else (He need 3 references) I never read a poor reference before; how honest usually are people in writing them?

(He is not a bad student, and I have written him a good reference on another application before, so I do not want to write him a poor reference...)

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    the skill is a bit specific -- let's say he is not patient, the post he wanna apply for need lots of patience... – ceoec Apr 20 '15 at 18:34
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    I never read a poor reference You never read a poor reference because people choose not to write one as opposed to writing a poor one. If you don't think he should go, then your writing a letter to help him go, despite your better judgement, is a disservice to him. – Compass Apr 20 '15 at 19:35
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    Do you mean that this particular position requires an abnormal level of patience, or simply that he is in general abnormally impatient? Those are two utterly different scenarios warranting two different courses of action. You're not being clear. – smci Apr 20 '15 at 21:21
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    I cannot turn down his request because he said he could not find anyone else. — This is simply not true. Being his only possible reference is not sufficient reason to provide a reference. – JeffE Apr 21 '15 at 1:03
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    @aparente001 that sort of behavior is well-known and is called passive-aggressive. IMO it's nonsensical to do that instead of just talking to the guy. – smci Apr 21 '15 at 6:41

Here's how it typically works (at least in the U.S.). First, you should warn him that you don't feel you can write a strong enough recommendation for him to get this job, and that you're convinced he'd be better off with another recommender. You should try to explain why, so he can learn why you think this position is not a good fit for him.

If he insists that he wants to apply and has no other options for a recommendation, then you should try to write a supportive but honest letter, typically by taking your previous letter and strategically modifying it to fit this particular job. By "supportive but honest", I mean making the best case you reasonably can under the circumstances, but being honest about any weaknesses and not endorsing him in any way you'd regret. Often, instead of saying "I don't recommend hiring him" you can instead say something with enough qualifications that anyone can read between the lines.

For example, suppose an excellent teacher is applying for a job he simply doesn't have the research accomplishments for. You can send a letter that comments in detail about his teaching and concludes by saying "Although Bob does not yet have any peer-reviewed publications, I'm confident that his work in progress will lead to a publishable paper. When combined with his excellent and enthusiastic teaching, this makes him a good candidate for a faculty position that prioritizes teaching over research." If you send this to a faculty search at a research university, they will read it as an automatic rejection, without your having to say so explicitly. (Note that if Bob actually applies to an appropriate teaching position, then you should not send this text, but rather a more enthusiastic version with fewer qualifications.)

Of course you may not want to set up an automatic rejection, but rather just to make sure the hiring committee is aware of your concerns. Another possibility is to conclude by saying "Bob is in many ways a strong candidate for this position. My one reservation is..." If the hiring committee agrees with you that this is a concern, then they will reject him, but at least you gave him a chance to find out whether this issue worries the committee.

  • In general this is good advice, but don't you think the OP has an obligation to immediately give the person the feedback, verbally? Before writing lukewarm letters of recommendation, etc. "If possible, you should try to explain why..." I don't understand the qualification with the word "If" in that sentence. If that conversation doesn't get the point across, then one or both parties to it has major communication problems. In which case, they've been putting off that discussion for way too long - months if not years. – smci Apr 20 '15 at 22:05
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    That's a reasonable point. I removed the "if possible" since I can't think of a good reason why it wouldn't be possible to at least try. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 20 '15 at 22:15
  • @AnonymousMathematician, thanks I agree I would just let the hiring committee aware of my concern with a supportive letter -- as I have already told the student already about it. May be the hiring committee does not see that as an issue. – ceoec Apr 21 '15 at 4:29

Don't write a negative reference letter. Don't beat around the bush with fogging like "the position is not suitable for you". Set up a conversation where you tell him clearly and assertively what his negative trait is (you said impatience), and be constructive about how he can improve, and how to manage his career in the meantime (avoid or handle such situations). Do this very urgently, don't delay - it's already hurting his career. Do it verbally, behind a closed-door. Keep it constructive. Make it a two-way conversation, not a firing squad. Suggest or agree actions or metrics for the future.

One important duty of a supervisor is giving negative feedback. That means you. If you don't do that you're a bad supervisor and you're not serving him well. If you're consistently uncomfortable doing that with people, the issue is primarily with you, not him.

Do you mean:

  1. that this particular position requires an abnormal level of patience ('patience of Job'), or
  2. simply that he is in general abnormally or pathologically impatient?

Those are two utterly different scenarios warranting two different courses of action. You're not being clear. Or assertive. Impatience is potentially a very good trait for some positions (and bad for others), so do you really mean he lacks the social skills or communication style to mask his impatience? Really focus on being clear and specific. Was it foreseeable that 1a) he should have been able to figure out said position requires an abnormal level of patience (in which case, help him figure that out), or 1b) is it that you somehow know this via the grapevine and are trying to secretly "help him" without telling him why? (in which case, teach him how to do his own background check on a position)

I cannot turn down his request because he said he could not find anyone else. (He needs 3 references)

EDIT: based on discussion with @Corvus, here is a major cultural difference between academia and industry:

[In academia] References have a standard set of things, and it's considered ok to write a reference which intentionally omits some of those.

[In industry] Absolutely you can! In fact, arguably you're obligated to, ethically. Arguably, the moment you detected a sufficiently seriously negative personality trait that would harm his career under your supervision, you were obligated to tell him promptly - not delay until the last minute when it damages his career or livelihood - as it is now. There's a pair of you in this situation, as they say.

Tobias K.: "You may also want to contact the people you send the letter to and tell them that you did warn him that the letter would be bad"

This is all too weird and avoidant for words. If you're that unassertive and uncomfortable being a supervisor and giving essential feedback, you should step down immediately from being a supervisor, or at very minimum warn anyone when they start under you that you're incapable of giving negative feedback, and that their career will suffer for it. If people saw such a weird cover-your-ass but-I-told-him-so follow-up letter, they might conclude that the referee has basic issues supervising and communicating with people, and that the department is aware of this and doesn't care. Don't create that situation. Set up the conversation with him immediately. Don't be afraid of that conversation. Handled right, it may be the most important and constructive of his career. It may also equally be an important learning experience for you.

You may want to try the book/audiobook/course: "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition"

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    To our downvoter: please state constructive criticisms. (It's kind of weirdly meta-, on this topic, to have someone anonymously veto me for suggesting that anonymously vetoing other people and damaging their careers is not a good course of action) – smci Apr 20 '15 at 22:14
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    I'm not the downvoter but your answer comes across as attempting to have a debate with the other people who have answered or commented on this page. Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum: it's a question and answer forum. – David Richerby Apr 20 '15 at 22:40
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    The downvote was partly for the way you berated the OP and other respondents in your original version pre-edits, but more importantly because I don't think there is any ethical obligation whatsoever to decline writing a letter. Why would there be? The nice to do would be to decline. But I strongly feel that a student would be a danger to patients as a doctor (yes, I've had some of those). If the student begs me to write a recommendation letter for medical school, why shouldn't I warn the school in question about my concerns? – Corvus Apr 21 '15 at 0:02
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    @Corvus I didn't "berate" the OP. I disagreed strongly with their premise that their problem rests solely with the student, not also them. But to be clear: I think you're suggesting a supervisor has no ethical obligation whatsoever to a) decline writing some sort of letter rather than b) decline writing a positive letter of recommendation for someone they strongly believe to be unfit for the position. "Why would there be?" Well you already cited the obvious medical/patient-harm example. – smci Apr 21 '15 at 0:44
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    @smci Things get more complicated if I am this person's direct supervisor. (Note that the OP did not claim this). In this case I probably do have an ethical obligation to give negative feedback directly to the person, as early as possible, where merited (though even this could be debated). But suppose I've already failed in this regard? My ethical obligation to warn a potential school or employer may still trump my ethical obligation to make up for my earlier failure by refusing to write, let alone writing an undeserved positive letter. – Corvus Apr 21 '15 at 2:06

If you do not feel that you can avoid writing him a letter, then tell him precisely what you wrote here: That the letter will not recommend he gets the position, for the reasons you wrote (which will pretty much guarantee that he does not get the position). Chances are that he will then no longer want you to write the letter.

You may also want to contact the people you send the letter to and tell them that you did warn him that the letter would be bad, or they might get the idea that you betrayed the student by writing such a bad letter.

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    This may sound silly, but I find it hard to tell him "my letter will not recommend him get the position". I did tell him I think the position is not suitable for him.... Thanks for suggesting me to contact the people I send the letter to.... Didn't think about it. – ceoec Apr 20 '15 at 18:57
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    "You may also want to contact the people you send the letter to and tell them that you did warn him that the letter would be bad" This is all too weird for words. Don't write a negative reference letter. Don't beat around the bush with fogging like "the position is not suitable for you". Set up a conversation where you tell him clearly and assertively what his negative trait is, and be constructive about how he can improve, and how to manage his career in the meantime. – smci Apr 20 '15 at 21:19
  • @ceoec : in academia, people knowingly recommend people who aren't suitable every day of the week. It is in no way equivalent to telling him "my letter will not recommend he get the position". That's an issue of clarity and basic assertiveness on your part. – smci Apr 20 '15 at 22:08
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    This may sound silly, bit I find it hard... — Of course it's hard. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. But it's your job to be a grownup here. – JeffE Apr 21 '15 at 1:07

Others have already stated ways to write what you want to say, in terms that are typically found in recommendation letters. Another piece to it is that lukewarm letters are often short: they describe the candidate in positive but general terms, but they do not go into the details you find in good letters. (Such as: "Specifically, among his publications, the one on homeomorphic indeterminate tangential operators stands out in its creativity: it introduces a new class of operators that ... ... ... . This paper, despite having been published only two years ago, already has 170 citations." This would obviously be for a more senior researcher, but you can find similar detail in good letters for students.) In contrast, letter writers who don't feel like saying very much because there is not much positive to say, often keep the letter to the most basic content -- not negative, but not detailed and positive either. A reader of the letter will clearly read between the lines why you are omitting the details.

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    Are you suggesting writing a skimpy letter, which while avoiding being incorrect, fails to communicate an accurate appraisal of the candidate including your reservations? Is your intent that this results in their application failing? – smci Apr 21 '15 at 1:30
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    I'm not suggesting, it just seems to be general practice. Positive recommendation letters often have a fairly predictable set of things in it. If parts are omitted, then this is a statement in itself, and the parts that are omitted are in a sense a statement about the reservations of the writer. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 21 '15 at 2:21
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    As far as wanting the application to fail: it's a question I tend to avoid when writing a letter of recommendation. It's a decision others have to make. My job is to convey my assessment of the candidate, not to suggest what they do. In fact, I find letters that say things like "You must absolutely hire my graduate student as he is actively being recruited by others already" pretty obnoxious to read -- don't pressure me. I much prefer reading statements like "I believe that her potential clearly makes it an excellent candidate for a position at any university." – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 21 '15 at 2:26
  • "Positive recommendation letters often have a fairly predictable set of things... omitting parts is a statement in itself " - I suppose academia is much more formal than industry in general. Recommendations in industry come in all sorts of different forms - most aren't even on paper. I guess this is a major cultural difference. – smci Apr 21 '15 at 2:31
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    Yes, I'm willing to believe this. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 21 '15 at 12:42

It is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say.

So write a reference that lists all his skills in the same order as the job spec, maybe even use the same headings as the jobs spec. But leave out the section he is week on.

Writing a bad reference or refusing to write an reference could lead to legal problems…

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    Could you clarify what sort of legal problems could result? – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 21 '15 at 11:43
  • In the UK the libel laws make giving reference high risk, but there have been cases when refusing to give a reference, hence making the requester thinking you only have bad things to say have also lead to legal action. Employment discrimination law also comes into it - it mostly assume the employer (or ex employer) is guilty until proven otherwise. – Ian Apr 21 '15 at 13:23
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    If you refuse to give a reference, how would a prospective employer know that? – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 21 '15 at 16:23
  • Because you told the employer you would not provide the reference when they phoned you or wrote to you. – Ian Apr 21 '15 at 21:32
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    That would mean that someone had mentioned you as a reference without getting your permission. Anyway, the question seems to be about a letter of reference, not about being just listed as one. – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 22 '15 at 4:15

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