Tell Us what You Really Think…About Letters of Recommendation

Topic(s): assessment, selection

Topic: Assessment, Selection
Publication: International Journal of Selection and Assessment
Article: Letters of recommendation: Controversy and consensus from expert perspectives.
Author: J.M. Nicklin, S.G. Roch
Featured by: Benjamin Granger

Despite the widespread use of letters of recommendation (LORs), there is some evidence in the research  literature that LORs are unreliable and invalid for selecting employees. In an attempt to develop some  preliminary conclusions about the advantages and disadvantages of LORs, Nicklin and Roch (2009) surveyed 575 academic and applied professionals about their experiences and opinions.

Points of Consensus and Controversy

-Overall academic professionals reported using LORs more often than applied professionals.

– Those who use LORs report placing less than 25% of the hiring decision weight on information contained in LORs. However, academic professionals report placing more weight on information from LORs than applied professionals.

– Applied professionals agreed that applicants can be successfully selected without the use of LORs,  while this was a major point of controversy for academics.

– Professionals tended to agree that LORs tend to be inflated (letter writers exaggerate applicant’s abilities, potential, etc.). Moreover, there was agreement that there may be no way to alleviate this problem.

– Interestingly, professionals tended to disagree on the extent to which LORs effectively
discriminate between job applicants (some think they are effective, while others do not).

– Additionally (and not surprisingly), LORs tend to be given more weight when letter readers (potential employers) know the letter writer or when the letter writer is from a prestigious organization/university.

– Finally (and unfortunately), a number of academic respondents reported writing letters for
individuals who did not deserve them.


Given the widespread reliance on LORs, especially in academic settings, these results confirm that there are several potentially serious disadvantages to using LORs and that letter inflation is an ubiquitous problem that may never truly be addressed.

Nicklin, J. M., & Roch, S. G. (2009). Letters of recommendation: Controversy and consensus from expert perspectives. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 17 (1), 76-91.