University of Oregon

Contacting References

Contact with references provides important information from those who have worked directly with candidates.  The search committee can use references as one way to address concerns or questions that exist after reviewing application materials or after an interview.

Letters of Reference

Research has shown that men and women tend to be described differently in letters of reference for academic positions.  Findings indicate that women are “described as more communal and less agentic then men, and that communal characteristics have a negative relationship with hiring decisions” (Madera et al 2009, p. 1597).  Communal characteristics are those that focus on relationship and reflect concern about the welfare of others.  Agentic characteristics include the ability to influence others, initiate tasks and engage assertively (Madera et al 2009).

Awareness of these findings positively impacted a faculty search from the University of Virginia. Read about it here.

Points to consider

Be aware of the unintended consequences of requesting letters of reference. They can include the following:

  • The writer’s unconscious biases about gender, race, and other factors can inadvertently appear in reference letters.
  • Letters of reference that use vague descriptors, lack examples, or use language that is open to interpretation can lead to inaccurate conclusions about what the reference is “really saying.”  Inaccurate conclusions often involve unconscious bias.
  • Relying on reference letters, as opposed to phone contact, limits the amount and type of information search committees have to work with because there is no opportunity to ask questions or engage.  As a result, search committees may be missing important information about firsthand experiences with candidates.
  • Requiring multiple reference letters from each candidate may keep some from applying for fear of wearing out their references.
  • If reference letters arrive late, or do not arrive at all, it can complicate the search process and negatively impact strong candidates. Among those candidates may be URs.

Phone references can be a good complement to or replacement for letters of reference. Phone contact provides greater opportunity to ask for specific information, follow up where there is a lack of clarity, and elicit specific examples.

Phone References

It is often a professional courtesy to let candidates know that you will be contacting their references, particularly if you contact references that are not listed in the application materials.

Points to consider

  • Design a clear and well structured process for contacting references.  When references are contacted casually and without a plan, it can contribute to inconsistency and introduce bias, and can lead to conversations that touch on inappropriate areas of inquiry.  This is particularly true when the reference is someone known to the reference checker.
  • Include multiple search committee members in reference checking. For efficiency, the search committee chair often conducts reference checks alone. Doing so can increase the likelihood of missed information, misunderstanding and limited perspectives.  Having multiple search committee members hear the input from each reference maximizes the benefits of having multiple perspectives on the committee.
  • Ask for specific examples. Eliciting specific examples gives the search committee concrete information and minimizes the influence of possible bias entering the process via the person serving as the reference.
  • Contact multiple references. Input from a variety of references helps to elicit a complex view of the applicant.  This can, for example, identify whether concerns raised by one reference are a pattern seen by many or the result of an isolated relationship or situation.

Read suggestions about conducting reference conversations.


Madera, J.M., Hebl M.R., & Martin, R.C.. (2009). Gender and letters of recommendation for academia: Agentic and communal differences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1591-1599. [PDF]

Jaschick, S. (2010). Too nice to land a job. Inside Higher Education November 10, 2010.

Trix & Psenka. 2003. Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society, 14, 191-220.

University of Virginia Provost’s search committee tutorial: A primer.

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