• How to Write Reference Letters


    An Introduction to Writing Reference Letters

    The employment reference, or recommendation, has traditionally been considered an important part of the college recruiting process. Career services directors encourage, and in many cases require, that graduating students include reference letters in their credential/employment files as further documentation of their credentials, motivation, and overall employment skills. Employers, on the other hand, often review reference letters and conduct reference checks to verify a graduate's background and qualifications.

    Until the early 1980s, employment references served their purpose relatively well. They tended to be candid and were sometimes painfully honest. However, in recent years, faculty, administrators, and employers have grown reluctant to provide frank information about their former students and employees, either verbally or in writing.

    This reluctance stems from an increase in the number of lawsuits charging reference givers with slander and libel—even where accurate information was released to prospective employers. To combat the issue, 35 states passed "reference immunity laws" which protect prior employers when they provide "good faith" references to prospective employers. Unfortunately, these laws do not necessarily cover references from faculty or administrators unless they can be considered "prior" employers to the students for whom the references are given. These reference providers must rely on the defenses available to them under the common law.
     

    At the same time, another trend has emerged. There has been a noticeable rise in the number of lawsuits against employers and referral agencies for hiring and referring candidates who were unfit for their jobs and who also harmed innocent third parties. Often, the basis of these negligent hiring and referral lawsuits is that the employer or agency failed to conduct a complete reference check on the candidate or misrepresented the qualifications and characteristics of the candidate. To complicate the issue further, this "negligence" results, in part, from fear of being sued by the job candidate or former employee on the grounds of invasion of privacy.
     

    These two trends have created a new dilemma in employment law. Simply stated, how can employers conduct a thorough reference check when reference givers are increasingly apprehensive about providing candid reference information? This brief, Writing Reference Letters, outlines the law regarding references, gives tips on preparing references, and provides samples of reference letters and the types of information that may properly be released during a reference check.
     

    In the final analysis, providing a reference requires a careful balancing act between giving and gathering useful reference information and protecting oneself from litigation. 

    Suggested Guidelines for Reference Givers

    Written References 

    1. Provide a written reference only if a student has given your name as a reference. 
    2. When you prepare reference letters, be factual; do not editorialize. Avoid vague statements.
    3. Respond to the specific inquiry about the student or job applicant. Direct the response to the particular person who requested the information.
    4. If a “to whom it may concern” reference letter is requested, document that this is the type of reference requested and that the student or job applicant takes responsibility for disseminating the letter to the proper persons.
    5. Relate references to the specific position for which the person applied and the work that the applicant will perform.
    6. Agood practice is to avoid giving personal opinions or feelings. However, if you make subjective statements or give opinions because they are requested, clearly identify them as opinions and not as fact.
    7. If you give an opinion, explain the incident or circumstances upon which you base the opinion.
    8. Be able to document all information you release.
    9. State in the reference letter, “This information is confidential, should be treated as such, and is provided at the request of [name of student or applicant], who has asked me to serve as a reference.” Statements such as this give justification for the communication and leave no doubt that the information was not given to hurt a person’s reputation.
    10. Do not include information that might indicate the individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, citizenship status, sex (unless by the individual’s name it is obvious), or marital status.
    11. Before disclosing educational information covered by FERPA (e.g. student's transcripts, GPA, grades, social security number, etc.), you must obtain the written consent of the student. Failure to obtain such consent may constitute a violation of FERPA.

    Verbal References

    1.   Do not disclose information regarding a student’s education record without the written consent of the student.
    2. Informal “lunch” discussions or “off the record” telephone conversations with prospective employers regarding a student’s performance should be avoided unless the student is aware of the discussions and has given approval for such conversation.
    3. Information given should be factual, based upon personal knowledge/observation of the student through direct contact with the student.
    4. If any employer contacts faculty and advises the faculty that a student has given permission for the faculty member(s) to give a verbal reference, verification of this permission should be obtained from the student before giving any information to the employer. Such verification can include a copy of the student’s signed employment application listing the faculty as a reference, or a verbal confirmation by the student, followed by written confirmation.
    5. In addition, those giving verbal references should follow “Written Reference” guidelines 2 through 10 (excluding guideline 4).

    Legal Principles Involved With Reference Letters

    1. Right to Privacy
      1. State constitutional or statutory protection
      2. Unwanted intrusion or disclosure of personal facts to the public or a third party
      3. No compelling reason to do so
      4. Specific areas are prohibited from disclosure, such as medical information, age, race, national origin, marital status, sex, religion, and disability.
       

    Defamation

    1. Common Law principle
    2. Definition - verbal or written communication that:
      1. impugns reputation, ability, or character of another;
      2. is received by a third party;
      3. is untrue, substantially untrue, or communicated without regard to the truth or falsity of the matter;
      4. causes damage to a person.
       
    3. Qualified Privilege - negative employment references may not be legally actionable if:
      1. the communication is based upon an evaluation of the person’s work and ability.
      2. made by someone who has knowledge of the person’s work and ability.
      3. the communication is limited to information which is job-specific.
      4. the communication is disclosed to prospective employers to satisfy legitimate business needs.
      5. the communication is not done out of malice or with intentional harm.
      6. the accuracy of the information provided is verified prior to its disclosure.
       
    4. Self-Publication Defamation
      1. disclosure of reason for termination by applicant  
      2. reasonable expectation that disclosure will occur as part of normal hiring process
      3. defense - sufficient documentation of termination decision  
    5. Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
      1. Federal law
      2. Right to consent to disclosure prior to disclosure of any part of educational record by educational institution or one of its employees
      3. Student’s right to inspect educational record
      4. Right to waive inspection of educational record, including references, if:
        1. waiver is in writing and signed by student;
        2. waiver is voluntary;
        3. waiver is not required for receipt of or participation in any programs or services of educational institution.  
    6. Release/Waivers
      1. Required in some states
      2. Permission to provide information regarding applicant’s previous employment
      3. No defense to defamation  
    7. Discrimination
      1. Refusal to provide a reference on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, disability, religion, marital status, parental status
      2. The specific characteristics listed at I. D. also could result in discrimination charges if disclosed  
    8. Negligent Hiring/Negligent Referral
      1. Negligent Hiring
        1. Definition:
          • duty to exercise reasonable care to select employees who are competent and fit for work
          • breach of that duty
          • harm caused by employee to another person
           
        2. Factors to consider:
          • was the employee’s conduct in furtherance of the employer’s business or for personal reasons?
          • was the conduct foreseeable by the employer?
          • where/when did the conduct occur? 
         
      2. Negligent Referral
        1. Definition:
          • duty to exercise reasonable care when reviewing individual’s background prior to referring for employment
          • breach of that duty
          • harm caused by employee to the employer or another person
           
        2. Factors to consider:
          • reasonable expectation that credentials would be checked by referral entity
          • did the referral entity do any type of background check?
          • was the harmful conduct a foreseeable result of the inaccurate credentials? 
         
       
    9. State Reference Immunity Laws
      1. States with immunity laws: Alabama, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico
      2. Each state provides different protection using different standards
      3. In general state laws provide for "qualified or conditional immunity" when providing a reference if the employer:
        1. Acts in good faith;
        2. Acts without malice or reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the information;
        3. Discloses accurate, job-related information for a legitimate purpose; and
        4. Handles the information in a controlled and proper manner.
         
      4. Provides no protection to other non-employer reference givers such as faculty, school administrators, clergy, and friends.
       
    10. Sample Forms (Sample 1)

      Anywhere College

      Release of Reference File Information 

      Please note:You have not established a placement file until this form is completed and returned to the Career Center.

      I hereby grant permission to the Anywhere College Career Center to release information contained in my placement file to employers, educational institutions, and foundations for the purpose of assisting me in obtaining employment, admission to graduate school, fellowships, and/or scholarships.

      Signature ______________________________________________

      Date _________________________________________________

       

      PERSONAL DATA 

      Name _______________________________________________
       

      Current Address ________________________________________

      Current Telephone ( ____) ________________________________

      Permanent Address ______________________________________

      Permanent Telephone ( ____) ______________________________

      Class of _____________ Major ____________________________

     (Sample 2)

    ANYWHERE COLLEGE
    Any Street
    Anytown, PA
    Telephone: 800/555-1212

      Career Center
      Reference Record
       

      Release of Reference File Information 

      Return this form after all reference forms have been distributed.

      Name ________________________________________________
       

      Last
      First
      Middle

       

      Name of Reference
      Confidential
      Nonconfidential
      Date Received
      By Career Center

       

       

           

       

       

           

       

       

           

       

       

           


      I authorize the Career Center of Anywhere College to collect and maintain a file of credentials for the purpose of assisting me in my search for employment. I further authorize the Career Center to send my credentials to prospective employers under the following guidelines:

      — Only as requested by me.
      — As requested by me at the request of a prospective employer.
      — As requested by me, or a prospective employer, or the Career Center.
      — In addition, to the person(s) identified above, I authorize the following individual to request the mailing of my credentials to a potential employer:

      Name _______________________________________________

      Relationship __________________________________________

      Student’s Signature _____________________________________

      Date ________________________________________________

       

    (Sample 3)

      ANYWHERE COLLEGE

      RECOMMENDATION FORM 

      The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 opens many student records for the student’s inspection. The law also permits the student to sign a waiver relinquishing the right to inspect letters of recommendation. The applicant’s signature below constitutes a waiver; no signature means that the student has the right to read his/her reference.

      Student’s Signature ______________________________________

      Date _________________________________________________

      Student’s I.D. #_________________________________________

      Date of Graduation ______________________________________

      RATING AND STATEMENT CONCERNING: 

      Student’s Name _________________________________________
       

      Last
      First
      Middle

       

       
      E
      G
      A
      F
      P
      N
      * Scholarship            
      * Ability to Organize            
      * Language Usage            
      * Skill in Instruction            
      * Insight Into Educational Problems            

      NOTE:E=Excellent; G=Good; A=Average; F=Fair; P=Poor; N=No basis for evaluation. Ratings should reflect such factors as the candidate’s achievements and intelligence.

      * These categories are examples only. Categories would change depending upon the position for which the reference is requested. This particular example would be appropriate for a reference regarding teaching ability.

      COMMENTS OF INDIVIDUAL MAKING RECOMMENDATION 

      (Information should be factual, based upon personal knowledge/observation. If additional space is required, please use a separate sheet or the back of this sheet.)

      Signature _____________________________________________

      Title _________________________________________________

      Department ___________________________________________

      Date ______________________ Phone ( __) ________________

      Institution _____________________________________________

      Address ______________________________________________

      Please Return to: Anywhere College Career Center

       

    (Sample 4)

      ANYWHERE COLLEGE

      RECOMMENDATION FORM 

      The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 opens many student records for the student’s inspection. The law also permits the student to sign a waiver relinquishing the right to inspect letters of recommendation. The applicant’s signature below constitutes a waiver; no signature means that the student has the right to read his/her reference.

      Student’s Signature ______________________________________

      Date _________________________________________________

      Student’s I.D. #_________________________________________

      Date of Graduation ______________________________________

      Recommendation for ______________________________________

      (Comments should be typewritten and related to the specific position desired. Information should be factual, based upon personal knowledge/observation of the applicant. If additional space is needed for your recommendation, please use the reverse side of this sheet or attach a separate sheet.)

      Related materials: 

      Sample Faculty Reference Letter 

      Sample Employer Reference Letter 

      (Updated November 2008) 


How to Write Reference Letters