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I Can’t Recommend This August 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
Tags: , , ,

I like LinkedIn.  I’ve used it for many years, well before the term “social media” came into vogue, and value what it does well: keeping me abreast of the career changes within my professional network.  Although the powers-that-be at LinkedIn have added other features over the years, the core value of network awareness hasn’t changed. Many of those new features provide little value, at least to me. And there is one feature that needs to go immediately: recommendations.

In theory, recommendations seem to make a lot of sense.  If you feel strongly about a person to whom you are connected, you can write a recommendation of that person.  The recommendation, once approved by the recipient, is placed on their profile for all the world to see.  LinkedIn thinks this is such a good feature that your profile is not considered complete until you have accumulated three recommendations.

In reality, the LinkedIn recommendation system is useless.  Here’s why:

  • Recommendations are universally positive. No one in their right mind would permit a negative recommendation to appear on their profile.  Self-selected recommendations tell me nothing about you, except that you can apparently convince others to laud you in public.  I suspect this is a quid pro quo practice anyway, so even that skill is suspect.
  • Recommendations are usually solicited. Who hasn’t gotten a request for a recommendation?  How many of us have written one, if only to avoid an awkward refusal?  Not to upset anyone, but if I really thought highly of you, I’d write a recommendation without prompting.
  • Honest recommendations are tainted. Surrounded by so many fake recommendations, the occasional sincere unsolicited recommendation is lost in the noise.  Their value is diminished to the point that they are useless.
  • Real recommendations occur without the knowledge of the subject. Real recommendations (which LinkedIn was trying to emulate) occur between people privately.  When someone calls and asks my opinion of another person, they’ll get a real recommendation.   It will have for more value to the requester than any generic recommendation on LinkedIn.

To eliminate all these problems, I think LinkedIn should just drop the entire system.  No more recommendations cluttering up profiles, no more requests filling up my LinkedIn mailbox, no more “happy talk” about people you’d otherwise not write about.

Instead, when you want to find out about someone, find a mutual connection on LinkedIn and contact them.  Use LinkedIn for what it was intended: connecting with your professional network to learn things and do a better job. You’ll get a better, honest answer that benefits everyone concerned.

And please, if you like this idea, recommend it to someone else.

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1. Barry Rubin - August 28, 2009

While I agree with most of your post, I disagree with the conclusion. How does this differ from providing a list of references to a perspective employer or recruiter? You certainly would not provide the names of anyone that would have anything negative to say? – Barry

2. Elliot Ross - August 28, 2009

I could not agree more!

I have never been able to articulate it as well as you have, but I have never put too much weight (or even read!) the recommendations.

I consider those to be the same as the saccharine references on a default CV – you pick the best ones first!

Best Regards.

3. Chuck Musciano - August 28, 2009

@Barry: I don’t think there is much of a difference between self-selected references on LinkedIn and self-supplied references. I think the best references come from our networks, asking for the opinions of people we trust who know the candidate. I also think some people would be surprised to hear what their supplied references actually say about them when probed! That may be the one advantage of a reference list: you get to speak to those folks directly.

@Elliot: As always, thanks for taking the time to comment! This blog is much the better because of all the great feedback and dialog.

4. abbielundberg - August 28, 2009

Chuck, I think it depends on the individual reference. If it’s overly general, then sure, it’s probably not worth much. But if the recommendation includes relevant specifics, then it has real merit (e.g., Bill is a creative thinker. He took the initiative to explore ways for the company to reach new customers (not part of his day job) and then developed a website during his off hours that in six months attracted enough Gen Y visitors to validate the launch of a new product…).
I continue to enjoy and find real value in your blog.

5. hhollick - August 28, 2009

Let’s start a movement. I think the LinkedIn recommendations are vacuous as well.
One of my other favorite bloggers / Tweeters is Clue Wagon. She has a couple of great posts on LinkedIn recommendations that you might also enjoy.
Check out:
6 Reasons I Hate the LinkedIn “Recommendation” Feature
How Not to Handle LinkedIn Recommendations

She is @cluewagon on Twitter.

6. Rich Walsh - August 28, 2009

Chuck, good post. Thanks.

My biggest peeves with the recommendation feature are:

1) No matter what else you do or how actively engaged you are on the site, LinkedIn deigns to view your profile as incomplete unless you get at least 3 recommendations.

2) So many recommendations just seem blatantly reciprocal. I know that’s true in real life too but when you get a network update e-mail from LinkedIn and you see ‘Alice recommends Bob’ and ‘Bob recommends Alice’ in consecutive lines, it just doesn’t feel sincere.

3) Eventhough people typically self-supply their own references off-line, at least if I get a chance to speak with a reference as a hiring manager, I can ask questions in the context of the role I am trying to fill and tailor them to any concerns I might have about the candidate from the interview process. You can’t get that context sensitivity on LinkedIn.

Where I moderate my views on the feature is in situations where the person is a business owner and those providing recommendations are previous customers of the product, or more likely service.

7. elliotross - August 28, 2009


“Where I moderate my views on the feature is in situations where the person is a business owner and those providing recommendations are previous customers of the product, or more likely service.”

That I can completely buy into.

Perhaps the recommendation engine should be aligned that way – “what has Chuck /Rich / Abbie has done for me”

8. Krishna Moorthy - August 28, 2009

I should have read this *before* writing a recommendation for someone on LinkedIn last evening 🙂

As Rich Walsh noted above, recommendations from customers are a different matter altogether and are very helpful.

9. Chuck Musciano - August 28, 2009

@Abbie: I would agree that a better-written recommendation may be helpful, but I think they get lost in the noise of all the rest. I have to wonder if a better system would involve allowing people to note that they are willing to be contacted in regard to another person. That way, you retain the ability to speak to a reference and get a full picture and avoid the “while feeding the poor and building shelters for the homeless, Chuck still found time to effectively manage the deployment of our new customer-facing order entry system, in spite of his broken leg” kind of recommendations.

@Heather: I like the idea, and really appreciate the point to @cluewagon! Wish I could think of good twitter account names…

@Rich: I do put more credence in product recommendations, especially on sites like Amazon where you can see the good and the bad. That breaks down when people get offended by a bad recommendation and get all lawsuit-y about it.

@Elliot: Focusing on tangible results helps, although not much.

@Krishna: Yeah, it makes me consider removing my two recommendations from my profile.

Thanks to all for the wonderful comments!

10. Scott Duncan - August 31, 2009

I have some thought about each of your points:

•Recommendations are universally positive
As others have noted, I suspect it is rare anyone offers up a person as a recommendation who has strongly negative things to say. I also suppose people who would have negative things to say would not post them in a public place. But then are you likely to find those people anyway if the applicant doesn’t tell you who they are?

•Recommendations are usually solicited.
Well, yeah. The LinkedIn recommendations process isn’t like some public blog. You need to be connected to folks to recommend. The while LinkedIn process is based on “soliciting” contact from another.

•Honest recommendations are tainted.
I’m sure they can be. I blush a bit at what some have said about me, but I don’t believe the people are shallow sycophants. So what they say is true, just very complementary. I read things with a bit of reality, but without necessarily assuming its all a lie. And there seem to me to be hints about some things you read that make them more suspicious. So I don’t feel I can’t tell the difference in a useful way.

•Real recommendations occur without the knowledge of the subject.
Certainly in a direct, person-to-person discussion the subject of the discussion will not know what is said unless one of the parties goes and tells them. That’s a bit of a truism.

•When someone calls and asks my opinion of another person, they’ll get a real recommendation.
So, by all means, contact people making LinkedIn recommendations and talk to them, either through LinkedIn or by asking the person to set up the links to some of their recommendations thjat you may feel would be relevant.

If I give you a resume with recommendations attached, you can be sure they are

(1) solicited, as you should never do that without people knowing you are using their names as recommendations and asking them for permission to do so;

(2) positive, as a person would be a bit silly to offer up a plainly negative person for you to talk to.

That being said, I agree talking to a recommendation contact is naturally important if you are truly making a hiring inquiry/decision. LinkedIn just gives you some places to perhaps start doing that. It does not relieve you of the burden of doing so and I never assumed LinkedIn recommendations were supposed to be like ones that come through actual talking.

In a sense, they are billboards trying to get you interested in the product. If you think all advertising lies, then it’s all questionable. If you do not, you make a choice of what to pursue believing some of what you see is helpful in guiding you to the product you want.

11. Steve Berg - August 31, 2009

I just interviewed a guy a couple of week ago and I asked him what he thought other people perspectives of him are. He actually answered by giving me the link to his LinkedIn page and said I could read his recommendations there! Personally, I thought this was a very poor answer to my question as I had already reviewed his LinkedIn page as I was interested in his perspective (not others).

On the topic of the value of these LinkedIn recommendations, well, I don’t put a lot of weight into them when considering a candidate or potential vendor. It’s always nice to see that the person has the ability to convince people to write something nice about them but the recommendations are always approved, so well vetted.

I personally think that if LinkedIn wants to create a real value in their recommendation system, then it should be like the eBay Feedback mechanism. If someone wants to post something negative about you, then you don’t have any choice but to have it appear on your page. This would then involve an entire dispute resolution system that would move the entire recommendation system into complete chaos!

Anyway – my thoughts! Interesting post and comments! BTW – would you mind recommending me on LinkedIn?! 😉

12. Scott Duncan - August 31, 2009

Having lived through the early days of NetNews groups and now social sites, I’d say public postings of negative comments about a person or use of them by a potential employer has a lot of legal danger in it. This is why most companies these days have a policy of saying nothing other than to confirm employment dates and, perhaps, salary (range).

That said, Steve Berg’s example of what someone did in an interview strikes me as one of those signs a person is relying those comments too much. On the other hand, it may be what we face more and more with younger (and older convinced) folks who feel social networking electronically is an essential, valid form of interaction.

Indeed, given that mindset, a person asked what s/he thought others perspectives were might easily think to point to a public form of such expression, assuming there was no special quality assigned to the word “perspective.” I would, however, been happier for them to “translate” all that for me. In this case, I would have followed up their answer by asking something like, “So how would you summarize all that these folks have to say about you? What qualities about you do you think they are describing.” The answer to that would also give me an idea if they actually have paid much attention to their “recommendations,”

That last point is what I would be most concerned about regarding social network recommendations. Does the person, themselves, really know what people are saying other than having some general sense of it being good?

I actually think LinkedIn statements by others could be a great stepping off point for exploring qualities and the like. Even if the recommendations are “tainted” — maybe especially so — using them to have the prospective employee go into more depth about the work/association could be a fascinating revelation of what you might really want to know about someone.

But, as I suggested in my first post, the interviewer would have to be willing to do some work relative to the comments made. I think dismissing them out of hand is, perhaps, too easy given what one could do with them.

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