The Art of the Recommendation


“Miss A, who graduated six years back,
has air-expressed me an imposing stack
of forms in furtherance of her heart’s desire:
a Ph.D. Not wishing to deny her,
I dredge around for something laudatory
to say that won’t be simply a tall story;
in fact, I search for memories of her,
and draw a blank—or say, at best a blur.”

“Try as I may,
I cannot render palpable Miss A,
who, with five hundred classmates, left few traces
when she decamped. Those mortarboard-crowned faces,
multitudes, beaming, ardent to improve
a world advancing dumbly in its groove,
crossing the stage that day—to be consigned
to a cold-storage portion of the mind . . .
What could be sadder? (She remembered me.)
The transcript says I gave Miss A a B.”
-Robert B. Shaw “Letter of Recommendation

I start so many stories with something like “back in the old days” as though I am 90. My life, though, is split between the pre-tech and post-tech world. My undergraduate university years happened around the same time that most people just started using email. The process of requesting recommendations from professors was excessively long and formal and took forever. Yet it was – and remains – necessary. It’s changed, of course, with online university applications.

This has carried over into the employment recommendation scenario, and nowhere is this more prevalent than LinkedIn, where all the professional networking takes place. I think we can all agree that the endorsements for skills are pretty meaningless. How many times have I been endorsed by people I don’t know for skills that they could not possibly know that I have? It’s a joke. The personal recommendation, though, is another story.

The other day I wrote my first LinkedIn recommendation for someone. Perhaps it is random of me to just decide to write a recommendation for no real reason. Apparently it is customary to request recommendations from people. Even though that has been the tradition in the past and makes sense when a person needs a recommendation, it does not seem bizarre to me if a person (like me) is inspired and decides to write a recommendation spontaneously. I am often inspired by colleagues and feel like a bit of formal praise is not out of order. Is this strange? Is there some kind of protocol about this of which I am remarkably ignorant or to which I am oblivious?

In a former job, we had an employee-of-the-month competition. No one at my branch had ever won. Everyone believed that it was largely because we were a small office compared to some of the larger offices. The voting was done by a “board” of managers, but the number of people from each office was proportional to the number of employees in each office, so voting was always stacked against the smaller offices, including ours. At some point voting changed to enable the full staff to vote. And the staff could submit written nominations (which would be put up for a vote without any names – of either the nominator or nominee). And that is when our office started to win. I nominated three people from my office, resulting in three consecutive wins in the final three months of my employment there (before moving to Iceland). This reinforced the idea that, in the absence of distractions, we go back to basics of perception and applying specific skills. Things in this case boiled down to how things were written and a lot less about reality. While I have no doubt that the people I nominated deserved to win, our little team that had never won started to win because the emphasis of the competition changed.

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