Predicting Performance with Letters of Recommendation

ImageIn psychology, it is commonly believed that the best predictor of future performance is to look at past performance. While it is not very difficult to verify the previous employment of an applicant, it can be rather difficult to verify the quality of his/her previous performance. An employer must obtain information about the quality of an applicant’s previous performance by asking an applicant either to supply names of references that the employer can call or to provide letters of recommendation from previous employers. According to Muchinsky, Even though references are commonly used to screen and select employees, they have not been successful in predicting future employee success. In fact, the average validity coefficient for references is only 0.13.

This low validity is due mostly to four main problems found with references and letters of recommendation: Leniency, knowledge of the applicant, low reliability, and extraneous factors involved in the writing and reading of letters of recommendation.

  1. Leniency:
    1. Choice of References:

We have all seen that in most of the cases the letters of reference are positive as they are chosen by the candidates themselves. This action of choosing ones references makes it lack reliability or validity. Even Osama Bin Laden can come up with three positive references when required.

  1. Confidentiality of the Reference:

Confidentiality of the reference is also one of the factors that lead to leniency. Reference letters are viewed by candidates, its proven by research that a person writing a reference is prone to write a positive or favorable reference if he knows his letter will seen by the candidate. Hence prone to include only nicer things.

  1. Sex and Race:

Sex and race of the reference provider is also an aspect to consider while analyzing a reference letter. According to researcher these two are factors that affect the leniency of the references. Researchers found that female letter writers are more lenient in providing good reference when it comes to other women. Likewise Black professionals are more lenient in evaluating the contents of the letter than a white professional.

  1. Knowledge of the applicant:

One of the major problem faced while evaluating a recommendation letter is the limited knowledge of the applicant by the recommender. The person writing the letter either doesn’t know the person very well or has not observed all the aspect of the candidate’s behavior. Such recommendation cannot be termed as complete and accurate. Even if the person recommending the candidate is his supervisor it cannot be termed as complete as employees often act differently around their supervisors in comparison to their behavior with their co- workers and customers.

  1. Reliability:

Reliability is one of the major concerns when it comes to a recommendation letter. There exist no agreement between the two people who provide reference to the same person. The problem is so severe that according to researchers that is more agreement in two letters written to two different candidates by the same person than two letters written by to different person to the same person. So it poses an interesting question if two letters to the same candidate by different person differs which one to accept?

  1. Extraneous factors:

 According to researchers the method used for writing a recommendation letter is more important than the content of the letter. For example:

 i.      Letters which contained specific examples are rate higher than letters that contain generalities.

ii.       Male and females use different forms of recommendations when referring to the candidates.      

iii.      A positive reference is usually longer than a not so positive letter depending upon the level likeliness towards the candidate.

Improving the validity of the references:

 To improve the validity of the reference Peres and Garcia (1962) developed a unique way to make letters more useful by focusing attention on the relevant content rather than the positiveness of the letter.  According to this two letters might describe the person favorably but the two letters will vary greatly in the choice of words used to describe the person. These choice of words used for describing the person can be categorized into 5 categories.

  1. Dependability- reliability.
  2. Consideration co-operation.
  3. Mental agility.
  4. Urbanity.
  5. Vigor.

So to predict the performance, an employer can:

  1. Determine the importance of each of these five categories to the  performance of a particular job,
  2. Read each letter of recommendation and underline the traits in each letter used to describe the application,
  3. Used the list of the words composed by Peres and Garcia to place each trait into one of the five categories.
  4. Total the number of words for each of the categories.


Predicting Performance with Letters of Recommendation; By Aamodt, Michael G.; Bryan, Devon A.; Whitcomb, Alan J.