Evaluating One Another

Evaluating people is part of life.

As a professor, I regularly write recommendation letters for students. They apply for scholarships, internships, graduate programs and jobs. Each cohort of students moves through these life transitions. The selection process is hungry for information about their character, their skills, and their potential for greatness. Writing these letters becomes a genre after a few years of teaching. Selection committees are interested in a limited number of dimensions. They often ask about specific qualities. They may provide checklists to quantitatively ratings students on their communication abilities (written) or (oral) along with a dozen other qualities.

The job can seem daunting at times. There are seasons, such as early autumn, when students apply to important competitions. The requests for reference letters can seem daunting.

Evaluating colleagues brings a qualitatively different dimension. The relationship is different. For one thing, colleagues can be part of your life much longer than students, who eventually graduate and move away. Usually requests for reference letters are part of the moving away process. Evaluating their applications for promotion, tenure, project proposals is an important part of some jobs.

An honest appraisal requires some effort. It requires going beyond initial reactions to the other person to reflect critically upon their work and their contributions to the organization. As with any relationship of consequence, there is always an emotional component to perceptions of colleagues. But professional relationships require a lot of thought beyond those more intuitive reactions.

Given that evaluation is part of worklife, it’s important to do it well.

  1. Focus on behavior. Build the evaluation on the behaviors you have observed and that are described in the application.
  2. Be specific. Referring to concrete examples gives more credibility and substance to an evaluation letter. It also makes it much more interesting to read.
  3. Civility matters. It pays to express civility and respect explicitly when composing these letters. These qualities do not go without saying. They must be said.

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