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As reference season begins...

Whether you are asking for a reference or, as in this Q&A from spring semester email, serving as a reference, clear, direct communication between candidate and recommender is absolutely crucial.

Q. From a student: I received a call morning from a potential employer of one of my legal writing students. He hadn't warned me that they might call, and I was caught off guard because he wasn't one of my best students. I just said that he is very personable (which is true) and that he has never missed a deadline (also true). What I didn't say was that he rarely shows up for class and doesn't put much effort into his work. I didn't want to mislead the employer, but I also didn't want to ruin his chances of getting the job, so I stayed fairly tight-lipped. I talked to some friends who are also legal writing instructors, and no one really knew what to do. What should I do in that kind of situation?

A. When your potential recommender calls to tell you that she has been surprised by a reference call – and not in a good way – you promise yourself never ever to do that again. Never apply for a job without thoroughly prepping your references. That prep does three things:

(1) it allows the potential recommender to decline gracefully;
(2) it lets you know if the recommender will be unavailable; and
(3) it allows you to prep your recommender with updated information that will be useful for this particular job.

When you are the reference and you get the surprise call, you have two choices.

(1) Be honest and say that you can’t provide a good reference because you don’t know the candidate well enough to give a fair evaluation.

(2) Lie and give a glowing reference. Murphy's Law says that this will come back to haunt you. And, you'll feel sick about it.

(3) Fudge and tap dance backwards. I was once called by a friend about someone for whom I had served as a reference for a job for which she was marginally qualified. She was now applying for a job for which I believed her to be uniquely ill-suited. I fudged and tap danced, suggesting that perhaps there were qualities in one of his competitors that he admired. I urged him to inquire closely as to whether this candidate had enough of those qualities to make the job satisfying for her. Even though he “heard? my signals, he hired her anyway. It was not a good match.

It's hard to say "Ewwwwww," but it's also hard to say "Wow!" for a person for whom you're not enthusiastic. You did a great job, though, and he should thank you. Now that time has passed, though, you might want to make a teachable moment and remind the student that recommendations require timely requests.