Should I recommend a student with a bad ideology?

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    My problem is the following: I teach an honors course in an engineering discipline at a small university. (It is not exactly that, but “teaching an honors course” is a good approximation to what I do). Large US companies sometimes ask me to recommend the best students for an interview, and they are often hired. The policy of the University in general is that it doesn’t discriminate on political opinions or religious beliefs or anything of that sort.

    Now, I have a student who is a very nice person and has a great academic record but he supports an ideology that many would find abhorrent. (Again, this doesn’t mean he is a bad person. For example, the famous mathematician and Fields Medalist Stephen Smale supported Stalinist communism in his youth, in reaction to unjust practices in the US:
    http://www.ams.org/notices/200011/rev-kirby.pdf ).

    Now, if I recommend him, I think there’s a reasonable chance he gets hired because he’s pretty good in technical matters. But then I think he might really get into problems there because he supports his “bad” ideology in a rather ostentatious manner, and I’m afraid that this will reflect badly on me and on my ability to recommend other students. I’m pretty sure the overwhelming majority of employees would be hostile to his ideology.

    Mind you, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to give him a recommendation for graduate study, people are usually much more understanding of that sort of stuff in academia, and the only person he really would have to please in that case is his advisor, and if the student’s research is good, the advisor would probably forget about all the rest. But working in the industry necessitates interaction with a lot of people, and I think his ideological views may cause problems.

    What do you think I should do ? Recommend him or not ? If I don’t, I feel it would be a kind of betrayal; especially since he wouldn’t even know why he’s not getting the interview some people less qualified than him are getting. I also have the impression I’m not the only one to have this issue with him, as he has been already “overlooked” for several positions where less qualified people succeeded.

    • estani

      If you think he/she deserves being recommended, then do it. And don’t be afraid of putting into your recommendation any peculiarities this person might have that you think are of interest to whom the recommendation is addressed.

      As an example, I’d rather “warn” people at a slaughterhouse that the candidate is a vegan activist than either send a blind letter of recommendation or not sending it at all. Of course assuming the person fits the job and is recommendable and you think that kind of warning might avoid future problems.

      If you treasure that person, then you want a good lasting position for her/him. Sending a recommendation that you think it will be misleading, will not have any benefit for your referee. If anything try to express why this peculiarity will not be a problem or even beneficial.
      If you don’t think it will… then don’t recommend him/her at all.

    • Kaz

      Supporting an ideology in an ostentatious manner (rather than privately or discreetly) is a personality problem.

      Discrimination based on personality issues is fair game. Personality is relevant to employment and employability.

      Someone who preaches ideology in the workplace clearly has no idea that ideological fanaticism has no place in the workplace. But that could just be because he is a student without much exposure to that world, if any.

      Since this person is a student and you’re the mentor, you can perhaps “fix” this person. Have a meeting and say,

      “Look, I want to recommend you for some potential employment. You have a great academic record and are qualified. But as your professor, it is my duty to you to also prepare you and all your young colleagues for the so-called “real world”, in whatever little way I can. Now please stop me if I’m telling you anything you already know. What I’m concerned about that your, shall we say, exuberant enthusiasm in supporting Ideology X will create difficulties for you, if you carry it into corporate environment, which is not as tolerant as the academic environment. Modern workplaces have certain rules of conduct in place which rule out promotion of ideologies (including religions) as a form of harassment. Those rules are not intended to suppress the ideologies themselves, mind you, but only certain behaviors which lead to an uncomfortable workplace. So if I send some letters of recommendation and those people are interested in working with you, can you keep in mind what I just said? What you ultimately do is up to you, but I’d like to see you, and all of my students, succeed, and therefore I want to warn you of any potential stumbling blocks in your future such as this, okay?”

      In other words, this can be seen as an opportunity to step into the role of educator/mentor and help the student. You and your institution helped to prepare the student so that he is recommendable for these jobs on technical grounds. (Five years ago, you could not have recommended that student yet, right?) So help the boy with something non-technical for once.

      Anyway, the student’s fanaticism could just be a phase of youth. A few years down the line, he may well have forgotten all about it. People can experience major ideological shifts in their life. When he owns a big property and a sizeable portfolio of equities, he will perhaps think differently.

    • anon

      As stated in the other answers, no-one can coerce you to provide a recommendation, you are free to not recommend a student for any reason you choose, or no reason at all – if you are not comfortable recommending this student, then don’t.

      However, from your description, I would suggest that it’s not the ideology at issue, but the student’s interpersonal skills. I guarantee you that I have opinions that you would find absolutely abhorrent, and you have opinions that I would likewise. The point is that in a professional context we usually have the good sense to keep these things to ourselves.

      It’s not clear what your opinion of the student, and their suitability for the role, actually is. If you think that the way he expresses his ideology interferes with his ability do the job well, or his ideological standing is in some way relevant to the job at hand, then there is no conflict here. (For example, a raving misogynist would be completely inappropriate in a supervisory position.)

      If you think that he nevertheless really would be an asset to the company, then you can either (i) informally suggest to your contact: “Here is a brilliant student who will produce technically excellent work, but be careful; he has a bit of a problem with appropriate boundaries at work.” and/or (ii) write a letter that expresses his technical skills and omits any mention of personality or social skills. The omission will be loud and clear. In the end, it is up to the company to decide if the tradeoff is worth it.

    • anaheim

      If your only worry is a possible negative reflection on your judgement, I suggest a recommendation mentioning the students Ideology and his eagerness to share it. I’m sure the recipient will be thankful, because he won’t miss out on a qualified candidate and can decide to assume him and handle the situation according to his best knowledge and/or the companies possibilities. Nowadays more companies than one would think have professional coaching services for their employees!
      Hope you will recommend him.

    • Vahid Shirbisheh

      There are different levels of ideologist people. When I was a graduate student, I had friends from other religions and I had very close friendships with them, and on the other extreme, I had a classmate from the same religion as I had at the time, but I did not feel safe around him and I usually avoided any discussions with him. So I think an individual should not be judged only based on his political or religious point of view. Here the important issue is what that person is capable or willing to do because of his ideology. Is he an extremist? Is he an activist who is connected with questionable organizations? Does he have a criminal record? Is he bothering people with comments or discussions coming from his ideology? Is his actions (and his productivity) in the workplace is affected by his ideology? If I have seen one of these issues (or similar issues), I’ll think twice about writing recommendation letter for him. Otherwise, I simply ignore his ideology. After all, the company is going to interview him and it is interviewers job to find out if he is a good fit for their organization.

      I have to respectfully disagree with you about one thing you mentioned in your question:

      people are usually much more understanding of that sort of stuff in academia…

      I don’t know what your experience is in academia, but I have several very bad experiences about being judged in academia because of my point of view, my nationality, my religion, my personality, even because of my very personal issues like being single. On the contrary, I have worked and had several interviews with non-academic organizations and I have never seen such prejudices in these organizations. The reason is very simple. In business people are trying to make money and as long as you (as an employee) can help the organization to make money you are accepted and nobody cares what your ideology (race, religion, etc) is. But, in academia, money or advancement is not the first priority, and certain people can impose their will against “officially accepted” academic goals. Therefore it is easy to be judged in academia just because you think differently. Ironically, the fact that you have recognized this student as a person with a bad ideology shows that in academia people notice and judge people based on their ideology.

    • seteropere

      The main question here:

      is he doing something against the law?

      If NOT then judge him based on the field merit nothing more nothing less.

      I really hate it when academics judge students based on their ideology/race/religion..etc.
      Academia is diverse; you will see different students from different cultures, now If you feel uncomfortable with one culture/ideology, then do not let that affect your fairness to the students. If I were you, I can’t let my believe in an ideology affects supporting my brilliant student.

    • WK Cook

      The fact that you have to ask yourself this question says to me that you should not recommend him…At this time. Being a teacher of any sorts has many responsibilities beyond the conveying of the subject matter of your class.

      If you think this person has potential, I believe you have a responsibility to approach him on this matter. Try to keep your own feelings on his “belief system” out of it and focus on the issues with his interpersonal skills. Perhaps recommend a course or book that would help him improve in this area. This world needs good minds now more than ever.

    • peterretief

      Possibly there should be a means to describe emotional intelligence in people and elements like violent or hateful ideologies should be part of that profile.
      As to your immediate dilemma, I think you should make it open information in a draft format and give the student a chance to respond.
      I think its very important to make this sort of information available

    • Ilmari Karonen

      In your question, you write:

      “Large US companies sometimes ask me to recommend the best students for an interview, and they are often hired.”

      I’d like to underline the words “for an interview” here. It doesn’t look like the companies you’re recommending these students for are just blindly hiring them based on your recommendation alone, and that’s a very good thing.

      It really is the interviewers’ job to filter out candidates with unsuitable attitudes or insufficient interpersonal skills — that’s the point of having an in-person job interview, rather than just hiring the candidate based on their CV and maybe an e-mail quiz.

      Sure, it’s possible that the student you’re concerned about may try to be on their best behavior during the interview and downplay any problematic aspects of their personality — most people do, after all. But that’s something any reasonably experience interviewer will know to account for.
      Also, if the student has enough self-awareness to know that they may want to downplay their ideology during the interview, they’ll hopefully also be smart enough not to flaunt it excessively in the workplace either.

      And conversely, this also comes down to their personal preferences regarding their work environment as well — if they don’t feel they can be comfortable at a job where they cannot openly profess their ideology, to the extent they feel they need to, then it’s unlikely that they would completely suppress any mention of it at the interview, either.

      And if not, well, I would hope that the company also has a trial period for new hires. Most do, precisely because there are some workplace issues which may not always be caught at the interview stage.


      Coming at the question from another direction, it looks like your main personal concern here is that:

      “I’m afraid that this will reflect badly on me and on my ability to recommend other students.”

      I very much doubt that will be the case, unless you’re actually being asked to personally vouch for the suitability of each recommended student to the job — a rather heavy and unusual responsibility for someone not actually working for the company.

      Just make sure that you don’t say anything untrue in your recommendations: if a student is lazy, don’t call them hardworking, and if they are abrasive and prone to conflicts with others, don’t say they’re a great team player.

      Personally, I’d suggest just writing up a fair recommendation of this student, focusing on their technical skills and any other aspect where they actually excel, and leaving those areas where they do not unmentioned. In particular, if you’re not sure the student’s personality would be a good fit for the company, you can just explicitly recommend the student for an interview at the company based on their technical skills, with an implied “just talk to this guy and see if you want him or not.” Who knows, the company might be just fine with his attitude, or at least might have a slot for him where he can exercise his technical skills without it interfering too much.

      (Of course, it’s different if you’re just being asked to send a list of names. But in that case, the company is definitely accepting the full responsibility for evaluating the candidates anyway.)

    • Jashan

      In my opinion recommend him. Whatever his ideology, for you he is a best student and as per the university norms and your academical valuation he is eligible. So let him live his own life. by not recommending you cant help him to escape from “same situations” in future. May be he will change when he get into the work environment. The college life and professional life is different in my perspective. may be he will adapt with the situation.

    • Aname

      As soon as you will send the recommendation letter directly to the companies, can’t you simply warn about this concern in your letter?
      Then it is their responsibility to talk about it with your student, during the interview; and to decide if his positions and attitude is acceptable to them…

    • posdef

      I think you should try and figure out what your primary concern is; to protect your (former?) student from a potentially hostile work environment OR to protect your reputation towards companies that you have been in contact with.

      • if you are primarily concerned about how the student would feel going into an environment that might turn out to be hostile towards him/her, just try to explain that his way of thinking, his belief… might not be appreciated and indeed might create tension in the future.

      • If it’s the latter, in other words if you are concerned about whether or not your reputation would be effected negatively; then I think you should not recommend a person that will likely not be appreciated by peers and employers.

      Yet again another perspective to this is whether or not you can distance yourself from the candidate in question. I mean if company A comes to you and asks whether or not you have any talented student, you can recommend whoever, given that their academic/intellectual merits are top-notch. In that case I don’t think you would be liable for any personality traits and such.

      If the student wants a recommendation towards a specific company, then by giving that recommendation you essentially vouch for that person. If you don’t think the student is a good fit for the company/institute, you should not recommend him/her obviously.

      I apologize if my answer is a bit too vague, I feel I used too many “if”s there, but in my defense the question is pretty vague as well.

    • oks

      If you can’t recommend him whole-heartedly, don’t recommend him. A lukewarm recommendation will be damaging for him and raise questions about you.

    • Willis

      I think for an appropriate answer I’d need to know exactly what the ‘bad’ ideology is. If it is something that could potentially be illegal or criminal, then the answer is clearly: don’t recommend this person. However, if the ideology is something that is political, religious, or otherwise legal, you really can’t bar this person simply because you don’t agree with their allegedly ‘bad’ ideology.
      I’d even go so far as to say, if you don’t recommend this person on the basis that they ‘hate gays’ or support socialism, you might be legally considered to be discriminating against this person.
      Ultimately, be subjective about this students work and objective about their qualifications.

    • anon

      As an adherent of Objectivism (an ideology I’m sure many many academics would consider “bad”), I never had a problem with this kind of issue because I am not ostentatious about my beliefs, or the kind of person David Brin would call a “lapel grabber.” It sounds like this student either is not aware or does not care that his manner of touting his beliefs makes others feel uncomfortable and alienated from him.

      Here’s the hard part: whether you write the recommendation or not, for the student’s own sake, I suggest that you bring up this issue to him. He may decide to throw it back in your face (a pretty likely outcome if he’s really in the grips of a true believer phase), but he can only benefit from hearing that his methods of pushing his beliefs are holding him back professionally and socially.

    • earthling

      Although aeismail’s answer is excellent, I will add my opinion that if the student’s ideology would cause problems in the work (as implied) that is also a good reason NOT to recommend the student as it means the student would contribute negatively and would harm the company (harm team spirit or other group dynamics).

      If you recommend someone who you could foresee having a negative impact on the company, then your reputation would naturally suffer (rightfully so).

      It takes more than just good technical understanding to work well in a team.

    • Peter Jansson

      I find your question very intriguing. I have never had a problem of this magnitude but are frequently asked to write letters of recommendation and sometimes for people who I do not think are very capable and so the conundrum is there, what do you do?

      If you are asked to rate people for a job where their academic merits are what counts then I think it is pretty clear that you cannot omit this person. After all, what if you recommend someone who has similar ideas but that you do not know about? The question becomes somewhat philosophical in the sense that it becomes: who’s responsibility is it? Yours or the company’s that hire the person? And add to that, where do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not? Other’s may set different limits.

      If the job involves tasks were the ideology might be key to the company the situation is of course worse and then it may become necessary to state the facts. But again, it is loose grounds on which we move and tactfulness is paramount.

      If you are asked to write a letter of recommendation, you can of course deny based on whatever grounds (you can come up with). It is also possible to make subtle points through what you do not say in a letter. Whether such points are picked up on th eother side is difficult to say of course. But it would be possible to stress that “academically the person is very good” and other points along the same lines, circumventing the parts that are not something you endorse.

    • aeismail

      Recommendations are an inherently subjective practice: people are free to support whomever they choose (or not to support, as the case may be).

      If you do not feel that you can give someone a positive recommendation for any reason, then you are better off not doing so. If you believe that giving a positive recommendation to a candidate will damage your credibility, that of itself, I believe, is sufficient reason not to recommend someone.

      On the other hand, if a company asks you simply to list, for instance, the top X students in your course, then you should not omit someone from that list for personal reasons; then the onus is on the company to decide who they want. Your job is to provide the objective information the company asked for.