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…

10 thoughts on “Just wondering about open reference letters.”

  1. HI Fred,
    Your point is only true if a person remains in international recruitment and employment. Open letters are still the norm if a person or couple choose to return to their home country to work. My experience is that open letters are still required and are the standard for most employment applications.

  2. Related to this topic from a teacher’s perspective, I wonder what you and other leaders think about the ethics of writing a solid or glowing open letter but counter with a negative or career-damaging confidential letter?

  3. The biggest issue I have with only confidential reference letters is that they make a huge assumption that the person writing them is not petty or vindictive. In my experience, sadly, that is often not the case. I know of directors and principals who have been friendly to a teacher’s face, but have savaged them behind their back. As someone who is lower down on the international education hierarchy, I think discrepancies between an open and confidential letter should raise suspicions about the person writing them, and I think using only confidential letters puts too much power in the hands of people who can and do abuse it.

  4. Thank you for this article reflecting on open reference letters, Fred. You’re so right! As a teacher, why should I ask for an open reference letter if it’s never going to be read, and if a new employer is going to want a confidential reference anyway. I was right in the middle of getting up the courage to ask my leaving principal and director for letters, but I’m not going to anymore (thanks to your article). Not because I worry about what they’ll write, but because I know it must be an annoyance for them, and I feel confident that if I need them to write a confidential one in the future, they will.

    1. Hi Margo,

      Thank you for taking the time share your feelings about this post. I guess it may depend where you are as some national systems do require open letters. If you are an international educator, you might want to keep in touch with your principal and director and ask them to be your referees in the future indeed.

  5. Any legitimate administrator will call the references to get a personal reference. I have always called references, whether they have been open letters or confidential letters. You can read between the lines as much as you want, but a personal call will almost always be a huge benefit.

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