Here’s How Unconscious Racial Bias Can Creep Into Recommendation Letters—and How You Can Avoid It was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
Got a great student, junior scholar, or former employee who is a person of color (POC)? Planning to write them a super letter of reference? That’s great. Remember that letters of reference can make or break a candidate’s application for academic and other jobs, fellowships, awards, and more. If you want to give them the best possible recommendation, you should stop and make sure you don’t fall into common traps rooted in unconscious bias.
When we, two scholars of color, recently reviewed applications for academic positions, the differences between the letters of reference written for white scholars (or those with western European or “American” names) versus scholars from minoritized communities became abundantly clear.
In each of our “aha!” moments, we were reading a letter from a white academic describing an immigrant or POC from a community that is underrepresented in our field. Often, the letter was an overall positive recommendation that described a candidate’s above-and-beyond performance over the years, but every statement was couched in language that “other”-ed them.
Sometimes writers emphasized a candidate as someone “not from here,” or compared them to people from their region. Others expressed surprise about a candidate’s good work ethic, creativity, and productivity for someone from their “background.” These were all formal letters on university letterhead—submitted in support of the candidates’ applications to join a research group or university department—and not isolated incidents.
While it was clear the letter writers meant to praise the candidates and were supportive of their success, stereotypes and biases were rampant. The statements we encountered were problematic and disturbing. They conveyed surprise that people who are not American or white were excellent at their jobs or that they produced top quality work and even performed better than their peers. As minoritized scholars ourselves, we were mortified to read that mentors expected so little from people who shared our backgrounds and that they couldn’t help but express how unique they thought it was that these scholars met and surpassed their standards.
At one point, Asmeret reached out to a group of POC academics on Facebook to express frustration and seek feedback (keeping the identities of the applicant and reference anonymous, of course). During the discussion, it dawned on us that racial bias in letters of reference for non-white candidates is pervasive throughout disciplines and career stages.
Both of us knew about the guide for avoiding gender bias in recommendation letters from the University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women (UACSW)—which is based on research that not only found differences between letters written for men and women, but also identified the negative impact of this gender bias in letters on women’s chances of being hired. So we thought a similar guide would be helpful for well-intentioned letter writers who want to avoid racial bias.
We developed these guidelines as part of an attempt to shine some light on the pervasive nature of racial bias and to help improve racial diversity in academic institutions, where we have both chosen to make our careers. However, most if not all of these tips apply to anyone writing a recommendation letter for a POC candidate in any field.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.”
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:
And go ahead and use adjectives like:
When we invest the time to write reference letters to help POC secure jobs and other professional opportunities and accolades, we need to be cognizant of unconscious biases we may hold and ensure that they don’t seep into our recommendations. The biases and stereotypes that we include in a letter—even unintentionally—can hurt rather than help a candidate we support, serving as yet another obstacle POC must face in a path ridden with them.