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How to Write a Negative Letter of Recommendation

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Managers, teachers and school administrators are routinely approached by their employees or students to write letters of recommendation for them. If the employee or student is held in high esteem by his supervisor, the letter will be easy to write. However, if the person's performance has been less than stellar, it is more difficult. The best approach would be for the supervisor to refuse to write the letter. Employers, however, sometimes feel that this direct approach is not advisable and may choose to write a negative recommendation.

Jot down some points about the employee's performance. Make two lists, one for the negative aspects and the other for positives. There is always something positive that can be found, even if they are characteristics that you deem less important.

List specific evidence to support your conclusions. For example, if the student is popular but has a problem with punctuality, you might write "has many friends; frequently late to class."

Choose carefully the words or phrases you will use to express negative characteristics. Use a thesaurus to help find alternate words which will less harshly convey the truth about the employee's performance. For example, rather than saying the student has told lies, you might say she sometimes has difficulty accurately describing events.

Type the letter on the computer, using your notes as a guide. Working on the computer will make it easier to revise as you write. Start with factual information, such as how long you have known the candidate. Describe what their duties entailed.

Try to start with a positive comment and then mention the negative. Balance the negatives with positives throughout the letter and describe the negatives in a tactful manner. For example, you might say, "Although Ms. X had some difficult confrontations with her peers, she was able to reflect on the situation and always attempted to repair the relationship."

Close the letter by inviting the prospective employer to call you for further information. Include your phone number.


If you need a recommendation, first ask your supervisor if he or she is willing to give you a positive recommendation. This is also applicable in situations where they might give the recommendation over the phone.


Although you are stating the negatives in gentle terms, under no circumstances should you be untruthful in a letter of recommendation. There may be legal liability if you are not honest in reporting the employee's or student's history.


Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.

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