Just wondering about open reference letters.

With the new year upon us, and the recruiting season that is kicking off again after the December break, I feel the need to touch upon the topic of reference letters, which can be delicate.

All of us have asked our Heads of Schools and Principals to write open reference letters. Also, as school leaders, we often receive such requests from faculty members. Sometimes, schools even list open reference letters as part of the application package. Writing such letters have become a typical step or even a ritual in the recruitment process, but it is legitimate to question the value of those letters.

In the meantime, when an educator opens or reactivates a file with a recruitment agency, they are asked for several referees who will then complete confidential references. The educator will be notified when the referees have completed their confidential references, but they will not be able to access them through their own account. Prospective recruiters, however, will be able to read those references to get an idea of what previous leaders thought about this candidate.

So, are actually doing the same thing twice? In this very busy world of international education, do we really have time to write open and confidential reference letters? As I was preparing this post, I connected with several respected international school leaders about that topic. There is a general agreement out there that open reference letters are not really useful. Some leaders say that they do not read them at all, but they go straight to the confidential ones. All of them have also mentioned how important it is to talk directly to the referees. Many schools have a defined process to check on references about several aspects of the educator’s practice including strengths, areas for growth, relationships with different members of the school community and child safeguarding. Other leaders actually do not write those open reference letters anymore but offer to call the prospective Heads of Schools or to send them a reference letter directly.

It might be time to evaluate this tradition since it seems to have minimal to no impact in hiring nowadays. Of course, there are always going to be some exceptions or even some national employment laws and legislations that will still require employees to be able to read what has been written about them. In the grand scheme of things, however, I propose that, when possible, we refrain from writing those open reference letters, we talk directly to the referees, Principals and Heads of Schools and we educate our faculty why this is simply more efficient for everyone.

For what it’s worth…

About Fred Bordaguibel-Labayle

Frederic Bordaguibel-Labayle is the High School Associate Principal and IB Diploma Coordinator at Academia Cotopaxi American International School in Quito, Ecuador. Fred was born and raised in the southwest of France; he finished his studies and started teaching in the UK, then went on to Istanbul and he is currently in Quito. Fred likes to pause, reflect, and share his experience as an international educator and administrator.
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