In psychology, there is a common belief that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. References and letters of recommendation are methods of predicting future performance by looking at past performance. More than 80% of organizations in the United States check references, and almost all colleges and universities ask for letters of recommendation when admitting students or hiring faculty.
Reference check: The process of confirming the accuracy of information provided by an applicant.
Reference: The expression of an opinion, either orally or through a written checklist, regarding an applicant’s ability, previous performance, work habits, character, or potential for future success. The content and format of the reference are determined by the person or organization asking for the reference.
Letter of recommendation: A letter expressing an opinion regarding an applicant’s ability, previous performance, work habits, character, or potential for future success. The content and format of the letter of recommendation are determined by the letter writer.
Reasons for Using References, Reference Checks, and Recommendation Letters
Confirming Details on a Resume
It is not uncommon for applicants to engage in resume fraud—that is, lying on their resume about what experience or education they actually have. Employers find that about 25% of resumes contain false or misleading information. Thus, one reason to check references or ask for letters of recommendation is simply to confirm the truthfulness of the information provided by the applicant.
Predicting Future Performance
Organizations can use references and letters of recommendation to predict future performance. However, references and letters of recommendation are generally not good predictors of future employee success, as the average validity for references is only .18. Using structured approaches to creating references and scoring letters of recommendation may increase their validity. References from people who know the applicant well are better predictors of future performance than references from people who are not well acquainted with the applicant.
Problems with References and Letters of Recommendation
One reason that references and letters of recommendation are not good predictors of performance is that few references are negative. In fact, studies indicate that only 4% to 7% of references are average or negative. This leniency is not surprising, considering that most applicants select people who will be their reference providers.
Reference providers may also be lenient because they fear they will be the target of a defamation suit if they say negative things. A person providing references can be charged with defamation of character (slander if the reference was oral, libel if it was written) if the content of the reference is both untrue and made with malicious intent. This fear keeps many organizations from providing references at all. Those who do provide references often ask former employees to sign waivers giving their employer the right to provide information and future employers the right to ask for information.
A second reason that letters and references are not good predictors of future performance is that two people providing references or writing letters for the same person seldom agree with one another. A meta-analysis of five studies found that the average reliability for references is only .22. In fact, research indicates there is more agreement between recommendations written by the same person for two different applicants than between two people writing recommendations for the same person. Thus, letters of recommendation may say more about the person writing the letter than about the person for whom it is being written.
Sex and Race Differences
References and letters of recommendation appear to be one of the few employee selection methods in which there are minimal sex and race differences. Though there is not a lot of research on the topic, existing studies indicate that men and women write similar types of letters and provide similar references. Furthermore, male and female applicants, as well as minority and nonminority applicants, are described similarly in recommendation letters. Thus, references and recommendation letters are not likely to result in high levels of adverse impact.
Evaluating Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation usually contain some combination of the following components:
- An opening paragraph that describes the relationship between the letter writer and the applicant
- Descriptions and evaluations of the applicant’s traits, skills, and character
- Descriptions of the applicant’s work, academic, or research responsibilities
- Statements that provide an overall evaluation of the applicant. Generally, there are three types of statements. The first indicates the overall quality of the worker or student (e.g., “She is the best employee I ever had”). The second indicates the strength of the recommendation (e.g., strongly recommend, recommend with reservations). The third is a prediction of the future (e.g., “She will be an outstanding employee for you”).
- A closing paragraph telling the reader to contact the writer if he or she has any questions
Research indicates that when people read these components, they evaluate letters more positively when the letters contain specific examples and the letters are not too short in length.
Because providing references and letters of recommendation is a subjective process, the following ethical advice should be considered:
- Explicitly state your relationship with the person you are recommending.
- Be honest in providing details and making recommendations.
- Be honest with the applicant about the degree to which the reference will be positive.
- Avoid conflicts of interest when asked to provide a recommendation for two or more people applying for the same position.
- Include only job-related information.
Although letters of recommendation do not appear to have high levels of adverse impact, some legal issues must be considered. Employers may be charged with negligent hiring if an employee has a criminal or violent past, the employer did not check references, and the employee commits a crime or other tort during working hours. Reference providers can be charged with defamation if they make negative statements that are not true and provided with malicious intent. Employers that do not provide information about a former employee’s violent or illegal behavior may be charged by the new employer with negligent reference if the employee commits a crime or other tort while employed at the new job.
- Bliss, W. G. (2001). Legal, effective references. Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management.
- Colarelli, S. M., Hechanova-Alampay, R., & Canali, K. G. (2002). Letters of recommendation: An evolutionary psychological perspective. Human Relations, 5(3), 315-344.
- Harshman, E., & Chachere, D. R. (2000). Employee references: Between the legal devil and the ethical deep blue sea. Journal of Business Ethics, 23, 29-39.
- McCarthy, J. M., & Goffin, R. D. (2001). Improving the validity of letters of recommendation: An investigation of three standardized reference forms. Military Psychology, 13(4), 199-222.
- Taylor, P. J., Pajo, K., Cheung, G. W., & Stringfield, P. (2004). Dimensionality and validity of a structured telephone reference check procedure. Personnel Psychology, 57, 745-773.