Odd Job: Writing a letter of recommendation for someone I had never met
“I was recently laid off.” Peter Randall’s job posting explained. “A neuropsychiatrist I worked for says he has ‘super high praise’ for me and would like to write an amazing letter of recommendation… but he wants me to write it.” Peter Randall had been given the opportunity for a blank-check letter of recommendation from his boss, and rather than doing a small amount of work to capitalize on a rather significant opportunity, he decided to post a job listing, seeking a total stranger to write the letter for him. It is possible that decisions like this are part of why he was laid off.
The levels of laziness at work here were staggering. The boss felt so bad about firing Peter that he offered to write a letter of recommendation. But that task– which presumably would take one hour, max– proved too much for him, so he delegated it to his employee. His employee, whose letter of recommendation clearly shouldn’t laud him for his ability to “complete any task assigned to him,” was in charge of deciding the content of a letter which would directly impact whether or not he was hired for future work, but he also didn’t feel like doing it, so he hired me. I was tempted to ask my mom to write it just to further the cycle.
Amazingly enough, this was not even the first time I had been asked to write a letter praising someone I barely knew for someone else to sign. A year and a half ago, I was one week into my gig as manager of a movie rental store when Sam, one of our employees, came in and asked my boss for a letter of recommendation. An assignment my boss quickly dumped on me.
“What do you need the letter for?” I asked.
“For the judge.” Sam answered.
“Yeah, I’m on trial, and I’m trying to put together some character references.”
The fact that Sam had a habit of showing up fifteen minutes late for his shifts without his uniform tucked in had suddenly become the second most upsetting part about his working for us.
“Just write whatever,” my boss interjected. “I’ll sign it.”
“Wait a second,” I said, feeling like there was something rather crucial being glossed over here. “What’s the crime?”
“I’d rather not say,” Sam said, eyes on the ground. That was reassuring.
“Did you do it?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, I’m guilty.” This event barely cracked the top ten of worst things I was asked to do at this job. But I digress.
At least Peter was, to the best of my knowledge, not a criminal. He sent me an e-mail with the bullet points of what I should say about him in the letter, a smattering of which I have posted below, exactly as they appeared in his original e-mail:
- “I was working at a private neuropsychiatric clinic as a medical historian (interviewed patients and gathered medical history for the neuropsychiatrist).”
- “I am not sure what work I want to do next, but I just to be armed [sic] with a good letter from this doctor. Dr. Watson says he has ‘super high praise’ for me and would like an amazing letter of recommendation for me.”
- “Responsible, diligent, honest.”
- “Stayed on task til job was finished and stayed overtime as needed.”
Peter then encouraged me to write the letter however I saw fit, saying, “You are free to do whatever you feel is best. I trust your judgement.” [sic] It was never clear how he came to blindly trust the judgment of someone he never met, only that he did.
Between the bullet points, my follow-up questions, and some totally blind guess work on the day-to-day of being a medical historian, I put together what may have been one of the best pieces of writing I had ever composed. A sterling endorsement for the services of one Peter Randall. By the time I was done, even I wanted to hire him. He came off as a thorough, creative, dedicated, and focused team-player who was incredibly proficient in an industry I only vaguely understood.
When I sent him the final version, he was blown away. “Thank you so much.” He told me. “I will recommend you to all my friends.” I smiled. Despite his clear lack of follow-through, I actually believed he would do as he said. Or, at the very least, hire me to do it for him.
-  Not knowing Peter Randall was certainly the biggest obstacle to writing this letter, but not understanding what happened at a neuropsychiatric clinic was a close second. ↩
-  I know when I really want to write something and have plenty of positive things to say, I always ask someone else to do it for me. ↩
-  Um, ya know, aside from the part where he was in no way responsible or diligent with this assignment and took the dishonest action of getting a letter written by someone other than the person who would be claiming to have written it. ↩
-  Should add: “Or at least until I could find someone else to do it for me.” ↩
-  With each passing typo, I became more inclined to add a few to the cover letter, just so the doctor would actually believe it was from Peter. ↩
In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.
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