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Best Practices in Faculty Offer Letters

Christine McHugh, Esq.
October 2020
Best practices for avoiding misunderstandings — and potential litigation — before a candidate joins your faculty

The formal relationship between a faculty member and your K-12 school, college, or university begins with the offer letter. Unfortunately, letters that are unclear or don’t document promises made in the recruiting process often lead to subsequent misunderstandings and potential litigation.

Faculty recruiting is a wooing process. At many institutions, promises made to entice candidates range from teaching responsibilities to helping the candidate’s spouse find a job. In theory, offer letters should specify all promises made during the recruiting process — but in practice, drafters often are unaware of these promises.

The following best practices can eliminate misunderstandings before a candidate joins your faculty.

  • Create a detailed template letter. Offer letters are usually drafted by busy department chairs who may not think of all the key issues to cover. Purdue University developed templates that provide guidance and sample language on numerous topics such as teaching responsibilities, start-up funding, relocation assistance, and mentoring.
  • Develop a centralized process for final review. The final reviewer should ensure the letter is clearly written, covers all important topics, and doesn’t contain promises your institution can’t keep. At colleges and universities, the provost’s office usually performs the final review. In K-12 schools, the final reviewer is usually the head of school or the human resources officer.
  • State clearly that the letter includes all promises to the candidate. The University of Missouri’s template letter explains, “This letter constitutes the full terms of our employment offer and supersedes all other representations, either written or oral, which may have been made to you.” Recipients must sign the letter next to a statement that says, “I accept the offer under the specified terms.” These practices preclude signers from later contending they received promises not included in the offer letter.
  • Specify which terms are subject to change. Most institutions need flexibility to change terms such as employee benefit packages over time. The offer letter is a legally binding contract. Therefore, it should state which terms are subject to change and that the candidate is not perpetually guaranteed everything offered at the time of appointment.
  • Make the position contingent on verification of credentials and applicable background checks. Verify credentials and certifications of incoming faculty. In addition, consider background checks, depending on responsibilities of the position. For more information on this topic, see United Educators’ (UE’s) Background Check Fundamentals.
  • Understand that well-drafted offer letters don’t need to read like a contract. They can be welcoming and express enthusiasm about the faculty member joining your institution while still covering all important topics. To avoid potential problems down the road, they should ensure there is a true meeting of the minds between your institution and new faculty member.
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