Unconscious Racial Bias in Recommendation Letters and How You Can Avoid It by The Muse

1. Check Your Bias, No Matter Who You Are and What Your Intentions

Keep in mind that unconscious racial bias is widespread in society. People of all races and ethnicities—including POC—are susceptible, and you may not be aware of your implicit biases or the ways they might creep into your recommendations. So keep reading and make absolutely sure you’re following these other tips—even if you think you’d never write a letter that would end up hurting someone’s chances.

2. Emphasize Qualifications and Achievements

According to the UACSW’s guide, letters written for men are significantly more likely to mention publications or talk extensively about research than letters written for women. From what we’ve seen, letters of reference for POC similarly don’t highlight publications or research quality as much as letters for white scholars do. Since research and publications are crucial when it comes to landing research and other academic positions, we should make sure any letter supporting a candidate for such roles emphasizes these scholarly achievements.

The same goes outside of academia: Make sure your letter underscores the candidate’s most important qualifications and accomplishments related to the opportunity you’re helping them land.

3. Take the Time to Write a Long, Substantial Letter

In our experience, many letters of reference for POC are considerably shorter and provide less detail. This brevity might be interpreted as a lack of interest and investment in the candidate’s success. If you really want someone to land a position, spend some extra time and energy to write a longer letter, and help elevate their application.

4. Don’t Hold Back or Qualify Your Praise

If you wholeheartedly support the candidate you’re writing about—which you presumably do if you agreed to be a reference—make sure it sounds that way on the page. As the UACSW’s guide urges, give them a ringing endorsement (such as “they are one of the best students/employees I have worked with during my career”) rather than minimal assurance (such as “they are willing to spend long hours in the lab”) or backhanded praise (“after much effort, they gave a surprisingly good presentation”).

5. Remember That Accomplishments Speak Louder Than Effort

From what we’ve seen ourselves and heard from our colleagues, letters of reference for POC often mention overcoming limitations and detail their “hard work” or “motivation” more than their accomplishments. Language that describes effort alone rather than ability and accomplishments can have an important impact when hiring committees assess the potential and “fit” of candidates for specific positions. So make sure you focus on accomplishments (research they’ve published, skills they’ve demonstrated, projects they’ve led, and more) instead of just their effort to achieve professional success.

6. Think Hard Before Sharing Personal Information

Letters of reference for POC (especially those who come from lower socioeconomic status or have an international background) also often mention personal information that is not pertinent to the application or expose details that the candidate might not want to share (such as their DACA status, the fact that they are a first-generation graduate, or their socioeconomic background). Unless this information is relevant to the opportunity or the candidate specifically requests you mention it, stick to professional accomplishments.

7. Don’t Evoke Stereotypes

Be sure your letter stays away from racial or other stereotypes, no matter what you’re trying to say about the candidate. Don’t say a Black woman “is not angry or intimidating,” or that a candidate who grew up in another country “speaks better English than you would think,” or about any POC applicant who was the first in their family to attend college that “their performance is above what you would expect from someone with their background.”

8. Be Mindful of the Adjectives You Choose to Use

The UACSW’s guide includes lists of adjectives to include and avoid in your letters in order to focus on accomplishments over effort, avoid stereotypes, and write the strongest possible letter. We believe the same lists apply when it comes to racial bias, too.

So use these adjectives with caution:

  • Caring
  • Compassionate
  • Hardworking
  • Conscientious
  • Dependable
  • Diligent
  • Dedicated
  • Tactful
  • Interpersonal
  • Warm
  • Helpful

And go ahead and use adjectives like:

  • Successful
  • Excellent
  • Accomplished
  • Outstanding
  • Skilled
  • Knowledgeable
  • Insightful
  • Resourceful
  • Confident
  • Ambitious
  • Independent
  • Intellectual

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By Jeanette Hickl
Jeanette Hickl Jeanette Hickl