The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 requires Mansfield University to make available to a student his or her education record for the student's inspection. Thus, any materials, such as letters of recommendation, are considered "open" and available for viewing by that student/graduate.
In situations where an employer requests confidential copies of recommendation letters, the applicant should provide recommenders pre-addressed and stamped envelope(s) to be used by the recommender in which to send letters directly to prospective employer(s).
Faculty or other personnel who are asked to give references have an additional duty under FERPA: They must obtain the signed, written consent of the student/graduate to disclose specific information related to the education record. Thus, if the reference wants to disclose the GPA or term grades, the student/graduate must provide a signed, written consent prior to the disclosure.
Tips for Reference Providers (faculty, administrative staff, & employers):
Prior to providing a reference, obtain consent from the person about whom the reference 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 reference. 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.
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 then provide merely a "glimmer."
If "to whom it may concern" reference letters are requested, document that this is the type of reference requested and that the student/graduate takes responsibility for disseminating the letters to the proper persons. You may wish to delineate the scope under which your letter may be used and for how long.
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."
Information given should be factual, based upon personal knowledge/observation of the person through direct contact with the person. 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.
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.
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.
Do not include information that might indicate an individual's race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, citizenship status, sex or marital status. Do not base an opinion of performance on stereotypes about an individuals, for instance "for a woman, she excels in math."
Keep a copy of all information you release.
A sample reference letter can be found here.