Most of us are faced sooner or later with the necessity of writing a letter of recommendation for some friend or acquaintance who is seeking a job and needs all the help he or she can get.
Our natural impulse is to respond graciously to such requests. For one thing, it doesn't cost us anything to speak generously about someone we know, or have known; we are also favorably inclined by the knowledge that we could easily be in that person's position, seeking a recommendation from some friend of ours, or worse, that our friend was asking us to employ him or her.
However, we are often caught in a dilemma. We may feel that the person who has asked for our endorsement may not be entirely worthy of it, and we are handicapped by compassion for the prospective employer to whom we are entrusting it.
I have had numerous disreputable friends in my day, friends who were robustly incompetent for any kind of honest employment, and for whom, though they were dear to me, I would have been hesitant to write a letter of recommendation.
This common problem has been addressed academically by Robert J. Thornton, a professor of economics at Lehigh University. Mike Welds of Fullerton has sent me a copy of Prof. Thornton's Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations (LIAR), published recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"All of us have had a request from a one-time colleague, friend or subordinate for a recommendation for a position he or she is seeking," Welds observes. "Prof. Thornton's lexicon seems to meet a real need in the life we lead today."
Prof. Thornton has hypothecated several cases in which a person asked to recommend someone who is unqualified may escape his dilemma through ambiguity. Prof. Thorton does not, however, suggest deceit as a means of appeasing one's generous instincts, but of avoiding a lawsuit.
"In all but the rarest of cases," he says, "a letter is apt to be favorable, even when the writer knows the candidate is mediocre or unqualified. This is so because the writer fears the candidate may later exercise the legal right to read the letter, and perhaps even sue if the contents are not to his liking and are insufficiently substantiated."
Prof. Thorton suggests, for example, that a letter recommending someone who is "woefully inept" may read as follows:
"I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."
Obviously, the writer hopes that the subject will think that "no qualifications whatsoever" applies to the recommendation, and that the employer will think it applies to the applicant, thus serving both the author's purposes.
To describe a person who is lazy, Prof. Thorton suggests: "In my opinion you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."
Of a candidate who is not even worthy of consideration: "I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment."
Of a candidate who is so incompetent that the job would be better left unfilled: "I can assure you that no person would be better for this job."
This trick of pleasing one's friend while protecting his prospective employer is not easy to accomplish. Ambiguity plagues our prose when it is not intended, but it is elusive when sought.
Having had to write letters of recommendation for some persons I regarded not only as incompetent but also, in some cases, dangerous, I'm afraid I have sometimes resorted to ambiguity myself.
I am thinking of a one-time colleague of mine who was utterly unsuited to the newspaper business, but who was a jolly and faithful friend and a good drinking companion.
He never asked me for a letter of recommendation, but if he had, it would have gone like this:
"Victor Frisbie is like no other newspaperman I ever knew. He will do things for your operation that you wouldn't believe. If you hire him you will never forget it. I couldn't be more sincere."
Perhaps there is an undercurrent of warning in that one, but I think it's provocative, to say the least.
Come to think of it, Frisbie was a good man to have around. He kept us laughing, he kept us from taking ourselves too seriously, and, as I say, he was a good man to have a drink with.
There ought to be one like that in every office.