In my field, computer science, employers offer referral bonuses of a few thousand dollars to employees who refer successful job candidates who go on to work at that company. My spouse works at a company that an alumnus would like to apply to. So do several alumnae and a former professor who has taught that student. I used to work there too.

Is it ethical for me to tell the student (truthfully) that, if he applies through my spouse and gets hired, we will donate the bonus to the college? I would also tell him (truthfully) that I would submit an equally enthusiastic recommendation letter and help him prepare for interviews no matter who he chooses to refer him.

My ethical concern is that the student might feel pressured by my implying I would like him to apply through my husband and fear that I would not help him as much if he did not. I could partly alleviate that concern by writing the recommendation letter first and giving it to the former professor at the company to submit after anyone has referred the candidate. Is that enough?


I asked an alumna at the company (rather than my husband) to refer the student and donate any referral bonus. She cheerfully agreed and coached him on interviewing. The candidate had no problem with being referred by an alumna (or by my spouse) and appreciated the coaching, although he ended up working for another company.

I think going through someone other than my spouse reduced the appearance of a conflict of interest all around (including to the company, to which I would have submitted a letter of reference).

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    I would ask my employer (I assume you are employed at the college) if they are okay with this. There might be relevant anti-corruption regulations.
    – user9482
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 6:58

5 Answers 5


(Disclosure: I'm not a professor.)

I don't personally see any ethical concerns SO LONG AS you indicate clearly (as you said you would do) that the recommendation letter will be equally strong regardless of whether or not the student applies through your spouse. Under those circumstances, I'd call this "networking," not "bribery" or "coercion".

The idea you proposed of writing the letter first and then informing the student seems like a nice way of ensuring that the student knows you've written a strong letter. There is the possibility that the student will still feel pressured, of course -- "if I don't say yes, then my professor will send a second contradictory letter" -- but assuming you have a positive relationship with the student, that seems unlikely.


I don’t see any conflict (or need to donate the bonus). Simply inform the student that as an applicant, that they are more likely to be accepted if they are referred by an existing employee and that at this company employees receive bonuses when they successfully refer a applicant. Ask if they have such a referral, and if not offer to have your spouse submit one on their behalf.

This is a classic win-win situation, where all parties benefit from cooperation. The only potential conflict is if the student already has such a referral, it might seem that you are pressuring them to use your spouse instead, which is why you ask if they have one before volunteering your spouse.

The only possible conflict is if you embellished the LoR in order to increase the students chance of gaining the job in order get the bonus, which is more than balanced by the resulting damage to you and your spouses reputations. An appropriately luke-warm recommendation and referral is going to better for both of you in the long run.


Your job includes writing letters of recommendation when students have earned them. Finding students a referral opportunity from a company employee is doing better than what you need to do.

Your spouse's job includes earning referral bonuses.

Both of you are doing your jobs. There is no conflict. Your spouse could reasonably keep the bonus.

  • Don't require the student to use the referral, apply for the job, or accept the job.
  • Warn students not to apply for companies you know are abusive.
  • Don't recommend students who will do a bad job.

I often found jobs for my cs students at the company I consulted with. I arranged to have the referral bonus given directly to my department.

I made sure everyone knew about this arrangement up front.


Disclaimer: this is not legal advice. This is just a personal opinion. I might be somewhat though in comparison with most.

This is a borderline case. In general however I would stay away from this unless you are very sure the alumni would like this job. Although I am utterly convinced of your good intention, even if you say there will be no consequences the alumni might not believe you. That sounds like it is not your problem but you have an authority position and so you don't have a relationship of equals. This means that you must be much more careful. And in this case the doubt might, completely independent of you, be somewhat justified, because you might not intentionally write a worse recommendation letter. But unintentionally you might. At least I could see that as a legitimate worry.

First writing the letter might be a good guarantee like @tonysdg pointed out. However I still think this is not optimal since then you might write an overly positive recommendation letter because you want the student to be hired for your personal gain (reputation within the college can also be gain) or it might at least be perceived that way. This might be immoral to the company or towards other students (since they get comparatively less positive recommendation letters).

I can see this working in a morally acceptable way but I think there is alot to be carfull about. In general I would be at the very least cautious when having a monetary/reputational (outside your reputation as teacher) incentive in dealing with students outside of the money adn reputation you get from the university.

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    I disagree with this answer. To the extent that reputational gain is a gain, all professors everywhere writing letters of recommendation for their students stand to gain from their students' success and are therefore in a conflict of interest similar to OP's. To infer that writing an LOR due to such a conflict is "borderline" unethical is therefore pretty ridiculous IMO, since the same logic would imply that all LOR-writing situations are also borderline. In short, I think your standards are way too exacting. Does OP need to be careful? Sure, she does and is clearly being careful already. ...
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 15:51
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    ... But is there anything remotely unethical about OP's plan? Not at all. Moreover, note that ethics questions are often about trade-offs. What of the benefit that would come to OP's college from a donation of several thousand dollars? Indeed, one could argue quite reasonably that foregoing the opportunity to bring this money to her college because of some hypothetical concern that bears almost no relation to how people actually behave in real life is the unethical choice. So again, I think the level of self-doubt you are advocating here is pretty unreasonable.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 15:52
  • Deleted a previous comment of my own for a being worded too strong @DanRomik On most of this I agree with you which is why included sentences like "I might be somewhat though in comparison with most." and that I think it is possible to do this within ethical borders. However I would not equate all LOR situations to this one. How often does your household get a monetary reward where a LOR is involved ? Yes OP says she will be donating it to the college, but OP's household still gets it personally, I might be somewhat naive, but I do think get this is quite an extraordinary situation
    – zen
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 17:08

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