Omission vs. Commission

Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Your nephew is on the phone and asks if he can drop by to talk to you. You have a good idea what he wants. You have been dreading this moment for the last few years.

You are a retired captain from the local police force. Your brother’s son has wanted to be a police officer for years. When he was younger, you had him on police ride-alongs. One Halloween you bought him a child’s police uniform. You arranged for him to visit the police academy. He accompanied you to the shooting range.

Ben Bycel

He’s told you and everyone else in the family that he wants to follow in your footsteps. This was not a problem, until now.

He just graduated from college and you know he plans to apply to local law enforcement agencies, including the department you served for over 20 years. There is only one reason your nephew is coming over to visit: He wants a letter of recommendation.

You ask your husband, who is glued to the football game on TV, what you should do. He shrugs his shoulders.

“It’s your call, Captain,” he says.

“I hope your team loses,” you respond.

Your nephew is a pleasant enough young man, but in your opinion, there is no way that he is police officer material. While he has never been arrested, you know he is a heavy drinker (even by college standards). His own mother had shared with you that he has been in a few fistfights because of his short-fuse temper.

You have heard, through your son, about some of your nephew’s near scrapes with the law on vacation trips to Mexico. And there is also that little matter of the $1,000 in cash that was stolen from your brother’s house a few years ago. No one accused your nephew, but the money was never found. You did an informal investigation and have always had some lingering suspicion about your nephew’s involvement.

You try to rationalize why writing him a letter of recommendation would do no harm. Maybe his actions were no more than youthful indiscretions? Heck, you were no angel as a teenager. Maybe he has outgrown all that and is ready to commit to an important job?

Most importantly, you tell yourself that if you write a positive letter for him, it cannot possibly be the deciding factor of whether he is hired. Right?

But maybe it will be. You have an ethical dilemma, which has both family and community repercussions.

You are not alone. The act of writing a letter of recommendation that is not completely truthful is something we have all faced both in an employment and non-employment situation.

If you are an employer, however, asked to write a letter of recommendation for a former employee, it’s far less an ethical problem than a legal one. In California and many other states you can be sued in one of two ways: If you provide false negative information, your former employee can sue you for defamation, emotional distress, and other such things if he does not get the job.

On the flip side, if you as a former employer write a recommendation for an ex-employee that provides a less-than-truthful positive reference to the new employer, you might be sued by the new employer for negligent misrepresentation, especially if the former employee later causes harm in the workplace.

But your problem with your nephew is an ethical one, not a legal one. What do you do? Be loyal to your nephew and keep peace in the family by writing a positive letter? Let someone else figure out he’s not police officer material. Don’t let the buck stop at your keyboard.


Or maybe you should “woman up” and, in a kind way, tell your nephew that with his aggressive personality, maybe he is much better suited to be a trial lawyer?

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to


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