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Career Development Center University of Illinois Springfield

Writing a Recommendation Letter

As a faculty or staff member, you may be asked to provide a recommendation letter. The following resources are available to assist you in this effort.


Guidelines for Recommendation Givers

Written Recommendations

  1. Provide a written recommendation only if a student has given your name as a reference.
  2. When you prepare recommendation 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” recommendation 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 recommendations to the specific position for which the person applied and the work that the applicant will perform.
  6. 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.
  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 recommendation 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.

Verbal Recommendations:

  1. Do not disclose information regarding a student’s education record without the written consent of the student.
  2. Informal lunch discussions oroff 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 Recommendations” guidelines 2 through 10 (excluding guideline 4).

Source: A New Dilemma: Reference Letters and Checks(Legal Monograph), College Placement Council (now, National Association of Colleges and Employers), 1988.

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Legal Principals and Recommendation Letters

I. 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.

II. 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

III. 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 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.

IV. Release/Waivers

  1. Required in some states
  2. Permission to provide information regarding applicant’s previous employment
  3. No defense to defamation

V. 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

VI. 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?

VII. State Reference Immunity Laws

  1. States with immunity laws: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming
  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.

Source: A New Dilemma: Reference Letters and Checks(Legal Monograph), College Placement Council (now, NationalAssociation of Colleges and Employers), 1988.

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Tips for Providing Recommendation Letters

  1. Prior to providing a recommendation, obtain consent from the person about whom the recommendation will be given. If you are unaware that the job applicant has named you as a reference, ask the prospective employer for verification that the individual has given consent for the recommendation. Such verification could include a copy of the student’s signed application listing you as a reference, your name listed as a reference on the student’s resume, or verbal confirmation by the student to you.
  2. Discuss the type of reference that you will provide with the person who asks you to be a reference. If you cannot provide a good reference, be honest with the individual. Don’t promise a “glowing reference” and them provide merely a “gilmmer.”
  3. Follow your organization’s policy regarding providing a reference. If references are handled in a centralized fashion, advise the prospective employer that even though you may be named as a reference, your organization’s policy prohibits you from providing the reference. Direct the employer to the appropriate person in the organization.
  4. If “To Whom It May Concern” reference letters are requested, document that this is the type of reference requested and that the student or job applicant takes responsibility for disseminating the letters to the proper persons.
  5. Respond to the specific inquiry about the student or job applicant. Direct the response to the particular person who requested the information.
  6. Relate references to the specific position for which the person applied and to the work that the applicant will perform.
  7. Informal lunch discussions or off the record telephone conversations with prospective employers regarding a person’s performance should be avoided. There is no such thing as off the record.
  8. Information given should be factual, based upon personal knowledge/ observation of the person through direct contact with the person or obtained from the person’s personnel record or student record.
  9. Avoid giving personal opinions or feelings. If you make subjective statements or give opinions because they are requested, clearly identify them as opinions and not as fact. If you give an opinion explain the incident or circumstances on which you base the opinion.
  10. Don’t guess or speculate-if someone asks you questions regarding personal characteristics about which you have no knowledge, state that you have no knowledge.
  11. State in a 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 these give justification for the communication and leave no doubt that the information was not given to hurt a person’s reputation.
  12. Do not include information that might indicate an individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, citizenship status, sex (unless by the individual’s name it is obvious), or marital status. Do not base an opinion of performance on stereotypes about an individuals, for instance, “for a woman, she excels in math.”
  13. Document all information you release.

Sample Recommendation Letter

Download a Sample Recommendation Letter (.doc)

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