Are your best references wrecking your job prospects?

November 23, 2010: 1:22 PM ET

If you want to be a boss, rather than painting you as someone who plays well with others, your references would help you more by saying that you excel at speaking assertively, influencing others, and initiating new projects.

Let's say you've asked a former colleague or boss you know is a fan of yours for a letter of recommendation. This person describes you with words like "kind," "helpful," "tactful," or "agreeable."

And let's further suppose that you're characterized as excellent at helping others, taking direction well, and maintaining relationships.

Sounds good, right?

Well, not necessarily. According to research from psychologists at Rice University in Houston, such "communal" language can scuttle your chances of getting hired for a management job.

It's far better, if you aspire to be a boss, for your references to use adjectives like "confident," "ambitious," "aggressive," "forceful," "independent," and "daring."

Moreover, rather than painting you as someone who plays well with others, your references would help you more by saying that you excel at speaking assertively, influencing others, and initiating new projects.

The ongoing Rice study, funded by the National Science Foundation, reviewed 624 real-life letters of recommendation for 194 job candidates (all vying for just eight actual job openings) and found that, the friendlier and more accommodating someone sounded, the less likely they were to get hired.

The jobs in question were university faculty positions, but professor of psychology and management Michelle Hebl, who co-wrote the study, says the findings apply equally to job seekers in the business world. "A large body of research suggests that communality is not perceived to be congruent with leadership and management jobs," says Hebl.

Most likely to be damned by faint praise: Women, who the researchers found are far more likely than men to be lauded for their all-around niceness.

References also included more tentative language when recommending women, using phrases like "might make an excellent leader," versus, for instance, "has proven himself as a leader" when referring to a man.

Notes Hebl, "Even small differences -- and, in our study, the seemingly innocuous choice of words -- can act to create disparity over time" in women's and men's career advancement.

Just something to keep in mind next time you ask someone for a letter of recommendation: Companies say they want team players, but when it comes to hiring people for management jobs, it seems that nice guys (and gals) finish last.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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