Letters Of Recommendation May Actually Hurt Female Applicants’ Job Prospects

HOUSTON — As if landing an interview wasn’t hard enough, women face another surprising challenge when they apply for jobs. The coveted letters of recommendation applicants hope will open interview doors may actually do more harm than good for female applicants, a recent study finds.

According to research from Rice University and the University of Houston, letters of recommendation written for women are more apt to have words or phrases that raise doubts about job qualifications than letters written for men.

“Letters of recommendation are usually so positively skewed to begin with that a ‘doubt-raiser’ can stand out in a sea of positivity,” says Mikki Hebl, study co-author and psychology professor at Rice University, in a university release. “Also, recommendations are made all the time, even if they’re not in letter form. It’s so important to think about the ways language reflects subtle biases, as these spoken subtleties also may add up over time to create disparities.”

Authors looked at the mechanisms of gender bias in two language-related studies. They considered words or phrases that might cloud an applicant’s job prospects. These “doubt-raisers” fall into different categories: negativity (direct criticism), faint praise (indirect criticism or a backhanded compliment), hedges (using vague or cautious language) and irrelevant information (going off on a rabbit trail of information unrelated to the job description).

Statements considered to be doubt-raisers in a letter of recommendation are such phrases asĀ “the candidate has a somewhat challenging personality” or “she might be a good leader in the future.”

In their first study, researchers found that letters of recommendation for women tended to have more of this doubt-raising language than letters written for men. And this was true whether the letter was written by a man or a woman. The red-flag language was consistently represented across all categories with the exception of irrelevancies.

Hebl says these doubt-raisers are so common, more than half of the letters of recommendation they studied had at least one. When all other factors among candidates are equal, Hebl says this one doubtful voice may make the difference between an applicant getting the job or not.

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In their second study, researchers set out to determine the impact of these doubtful words and phrases. They took identical letters written for either a male or female applicant, and they changed them up just enough to add one of the four types of doubt-raisers to each one. Then they asked about 300 university professors to each rate one recommendation letter.

Participants gave negative ratings to the letters, whether the one doubt-raiser was negativity, faint praise or hedges. Irrelevant information had no impact on ratings. Researchers found that doubt-raisers earned a negative response whether the letter was written for a man or a woman.

“I would suggest avoiding these types of phrases in recommendations if you are trying to write a strong letter,” Hebl says, “and to be aware that they might be more likely to unintentionally slip into letters for women than men.”

Findings were published April 26, 2018 in the Journal of Business and Psychology.