Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Knowing your potential recommendation sources’ online reputations and selecting them to meet your specific needs

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar is known as one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century. One of the fundamental constraints of astrophysics, setting the maximum mass that a stable white dwarf star can have without collapsing into a black hole was named in his honor: the Chandrasekhar limit – for the analyses and calculations that he carried out on this problem when he was only 19 years old. And his 1983 Nobel Prize in physics was only one of a long series of awards and honors that he was recipient to, through the length of his career.

You would think that a letter of recommendation from this giant in his profession would serve as a career shaping advantage for any younger scientist who was offered one. But Chandrasekhar was a very generous man with his recommendations, and he sought to help all who came to him seeking advice or help. He ended up writing essentially the same glowing letter of recommendation for many, and the end result was that the professionals who received these missives came to see them as essentially meaningless. The physicists who ran the high profile, premier research labs and other facilities that these letters were sent to, saw them arrive in their mail too many times and for too many applicants looking for research fellowships and other career-building work opportunities.

I offer this pre-internet example of recommendations gone wrong both to show how the issues that I write of here are of long standing, and to specifically note how a referral from even a stellar source who is widely regarded, can be problematical for the level and type of value that it would offer. And with that in place, I turn to consider our much more complex always online and always connected context that we face today. We are all visible and from multiple directions, and both for what we post online ourselves and for what is posted about us. This applies to all of us as individuals for what we say about ourselves, and for what is said about us through publically available and searchable forums and channels, social media channels definitely included. And this applies just as fully to those who we would request recommendations from, as it does to us and for our reputations when we are in a position where we would need letters of recommendation.

• Consider the people we would seek those recommendations from, and how their reputations as people and as professionals, and their reputations for the recommendations they offer might be different, and where all of those considerations can be vitally important.

Conduct at least some basic due diligence research on the people who you would interview with and work with when you are seeking a job, and do a basic online and social media due diligence search on anyone who you would interview and consider for hiring when you are on that side of the interviewing and hiring table. And just as importantly and certainly in the context of this posting and the issues it raises, learn about anyone and everyone who you might consider requesting recommendations from to find out what their reputations are like online and in the social media, and in their professional communities.

I write this note here because so few people seek out this type of information, and certainly when asking an “obvious” recommendation source for that type of support. Should you ask your most recent direct manager for a letter of recommendation when looking for a new job? Assume here that you are leaving your old job on good terms and as a valued employee but that you have to make this change, for example, because you have to relocate to another part of the country for family reasons. In principle, this recommendation request might make sense, and certainly if you and this now former manager have been on cordial terms and have gotten along well. But would you ask them for a letter of recommendation if you know from online postings from others who had received letters of recommendation from this manager, that they always take what they see as a “fair and balanced” approach to their recommendations writing and add in a negative, even if they really have to work to find one? Caveats and hesitations to positively recommend give the people receiving these letters very significant pause for thought and are very likely to be deal breakers, blocking a hiring.

Would you ask this manager for a letter of recommendation if an online search were to show that they have a poor reputation in their professional community, or that they have shown consistently poor judgment in their social media sharing and are questionable for their perhaps more professional judgment because of that?

When you ask someone for a letter of recommendation, you have to assume that the people who receive them do not personally know the people who send them. So you have to assume that they will look them up, and on professional-oriented social media sites such as LinkedIn and on Facebook too with its almost 1.4 billion members as of this writing, and on other sites as well. And they will judge you and your level and sense of judgment on the basis of what they find out about the people you turn to for your recommendations.

I write this here because this is so important and because this at least seems to be a basic due diligence step that so few take. But as online reviews of job applicants and new hire candidates become more and more common, and even routine and with that including an all but automatic search of social media as a part of this due diligence exercise, you have to assume that a prospective hiring manager will check out anyone you ask to recommend you too. And you do not want their problems that might emerge from that review to become your problems too.

• Research your potential sources of letters of recommendation before you ask them to help you by providing those letters.
• Then ask the potential sources for these recommendations for them, who you would be happy to see recommendations coming from if you were the hiring manager looking for validation that you have found the right candidate to hire.

You can find this and related material about jobs and careers best practices at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide, with this posting and similar included at the bottom of those directory pages as supplemental postings. And you can also find this and related material at Social Networking and Business and its continuation page too.

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