Writing Letters of Reference
A Guide for Faculty and Staff
There is an increasing number of lawsuits being brought against faculty members who write reference letters for students. Most of the cases involve defamation of character, although several discrimination suits have also been filed.
The law grants a "qualified privilege" to reference letter writers. This privilege allows the writer to make statements free of liability. However, the privilege is very strictly defined, and a reference writer failing to meet one of the elements of the privilege can be held liable.
Guidelines for Reference Writers
The following guidelines will help you to write "safer" reference letters. Although there is no sure way of avoiding a lawsuit, these guidelines will help lower your risk of liability. The guidelines can apply to letters written both for students seeking employment and those applying to graduate schools.
1) Provide a written reference only if a student requests a letter; do not offer to write one. By “offering” to write a letter for a student, the reference writer may potentially compromise certain legal safeguards should a lawsuit ensue.
2) Discuss with the student the audience for which the letter should be written (school district, employer, graduate school, etc.).
3) Request from the student any applicable materials that may be helpful in crafting the letter (resume, graduate school personal statement, etc.).
4) If the student has asked you to write several letters to be sent to different locations (e.g., graduate schools), ask the student to provide you with the names and addresses of the individuals who will receive your letter, as well as preaddressed and stamped envelopes in which to mail their letters. It is also helpful to mutually agree on a deadline by which the letters will be finished.
5) State in the first paragraph of your letter the name of the student for whom the letter is written; whether or not the letter was requested by the student; for what reason the letter was requested (employment, entrance to graduate school, inclusion in a portfolio); and in what capacity (and for how long) you have known the student.
6) When you prepare reference letters, be factual; do not editorialize. Do not make general comments about the student's character (e.g., "He is lazy" or "She is really sweet").
7) A good 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 and explain the incident or circumstances upon which you base the opinion.
8) Be able to document all information you release.
9) 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), sexual orientation, or marital status.
10) Decline to write letters of reference for students with whom you’ve had a negative experience (poor work/classroom performance, excessive absenteeism from class, poor/negative attitude, other problematic behaviors).
Adapted from the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) Guidelines for Writing Letters of Reference (2005). Questions regarding these guidelines should be directed to the Career Center at 563-387-1025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.