You are approached by a mediocre student, asking for a letter of recommendation for residency. Or an outside institution asks for your opinion—in writing—about promoting one of their quite-average faculty members. How do you proceed?
Few, if any, have taken classes about this seemingly simple feat—communicating evaluations of our peers. Whether the subject in question is a rising star or someone struggling to simply stay afloat, the jargon we have become accustomed to — “she is in the top 1% of students I’ve worked with” or “he is one of the best that we’ve trained” — is vague and imprecise.
This ambiguity can be a disservice to all involved — the individual requiring appraisal, the institution that may employ or train that person, and the person evaluating them. What do these phrases mean? Is there a “code” that only a few (e.g. chairman and program directors) are privy to? And if verbal, high-level communication is the basis for these life-impacting decisions, how do the rest of us learn this language?
Perhaps seasoned surgical leaders could help us answer these questions:
- What needs to be written, as opposed to being said?
- Is it ethical to write something supportive—but subsequently verbalize a negative evaluation?
- Should the letter writer be concerned that a negative written evaluation of a colleague will limit future professional opportunities, and if so, how is that circumvented?
These inter-personal challenges are inherent in the small world, closely knit network of academic surgery. And there would seem to be room for more broad understanding of how such critical evaluation is conveyed. Openness has its pitfalls, with hurt feelings, concerns of inadequacy, and potential retribution. But shouldn’t we all understand the bottom line, no matter the cost?