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Letterhead ethics

November 19, 2010

Here’s a question for anyone reading my blog, and in this case I would especially appreciate hearing your comments:

Assuming that one is gainfully employed in academia, either as a librarian or as faculty, and applying for similar work at another institution, should one use their current institution’s letterhead for the cover letters?

I say no. Your current employer (assuming you are not being downsized or laid off) should not be asked to support your job search. Letterhead is for official business related to the university, not for one’s personal choices. For me, it is the same as if one were to take home a bunch of office supplies for their kids’ school or club projects. Many people do it, but that does not make it right.

My wife says bosh to all that. She says that as an academic one is entitled to the letterhead, and should use it for job applications to assert one’s footing in the profession. I get her point, but if your CV says you are an assistant professor at University X, do reviewers of applications really need the visual reminder? As evidence, she showed me a stack of applications where people with jobs used letterhead to apply for a Kansas State job.

I have reviewed countless applications for library jobs, and have only rarely seen an applicant use the letterhead of their current library. My wife says we are just different professions. I say that her peers have loose ethical definitions.

What’s your take?

  1. November 19, 2010 18:53

    I vote no on the letterhead. when you send something on letterhead, you’re sort of representing the institution whose logo your letter sports, aren’t you? if you’re applying for a job elsewhere, you’re applying as *you*, not a person employed at whatever institution. the fact that you are actually employed there is sort of incidental, isn’t it?

    so, yeah, no.

    • Dale permalink*
      November 19, 2010 19:36

      Thanks for chiming in, Amanda. I agree, of course. In fact, one of the nicer aspects of using your own paper is that one has more freedom to design an attractive package, where fonts and layout can make the whole application pack look cohesive and thoughtfully planned. Letterhead can stick out like a sore thumb, and nearly always conflicts with one’s CV.

  2. November 19, 2010 21:17

    I say no as well. Does a potential employer want to worry that you will, in the future, be using their letterhead (and printer, and envelopes, and stamps, etc.) to find a new job? With the job market the way it is, don’t give employers any reason to cut you from the stack of resumes they are looking through. I would think a potential employer would wonder what else you would be taking from them for personal use.

    Your wife does have a good point, that you are entitled to use the supplies at your current job, but since you are already gainfully (or not so gainfully, since you are looking for a new job) employed there, you can probably rest easy knowing you are not going to be fired for unofficial use of supplies. However, it may not impress someone looking to fill an open position, especially when budgets are tight.

  3. Jamene permalink
    November 19, 2010 21:53

    Nope. If one is an academic in one’s own right, one should be able to present oneself as an applicant outside the aegis of any institution. If you need the employer’s letterhead to make yourself look better as a candidate, you probably shouldn’t be applying for the job in the first place. If I was reviewing applications I would be very wary of the applicant who chose this route. Do you not care enough about your application/the job opening to take the time to get your own nice paper?

  4. Sam permalink
    November 19, 2010 22:15

    Dale – I say no too! But I am speaking as someone who is employed in a non-academic role at an academic institution so may be I don’t see it from Jennifer’s eyes!

  5. Emily Horning permalink
    November 20, 2010 02:03

    I say no – letterhead is for university business only. I would also use my gmail address on my CV, not my academic account; one’s work history should be evidence enough.

  6. November 24, 2010 18:38

    I’d say no, too. When I applied for another job here in my library I was strongly advised by my colleagues not to use the letterhead of my library. I even used my personal mail and e-mail address, same with the phone number. You apply as a private person, writing an application in your freetime. So, my superiors didn’t have the chance to believe I was doing my application during precious work time. 😉

  7. Dale permalink*
    November 24, 2010 18:50

    From this small sample it is clear that many feel that using letterhead is wrong. But there is clearly a different view on this in the applicant pool in my wife’s field. She showed me a stack again the other day where applicants were using the letterhead of their employer.

    I suppose I can see that this might be justified, if the employer–as is so often the case these days–has hired the scholar on a terminal contract. One does this to fill a need, but it is really rather exploitative at the end of the day, thus it makes some sense that a scholar might say, fine, I’ll work for a terrible salary to get you through your bind, and you’ll give me the benefit of looking like someone building a career.

    This does not apply, of course, to those looking to make lateral moves, i.e.- from one tenure track job to another. Not sure why anyone in that situation would feel that using their current employer’s letterhead–after all, they are seeking to leave for whatever reason–would be desirable and/or OK.

    • Greg permalink
      November 30, 2010 13:43

      I have been on several academic search committees for faculty positions in fields as varied as education, psychology, and Spanish, and the majority of the applicants in all fields use letterhead from their current institution for their cover letters. I was also advised to do so when I was in graduate school. (I used the letterhead from the institution I was about to graduate from.) Using letterhead indicates that one has a current standing in academia and a connection with an institution. When I see applications for a faculty position that are NOT on letterhead, it makes me wonder why. Did this applicant lose his/her position before securing another one? Has he/she been out of work for a while? Is there a reason he/she is not associated with an institution?

      In my experience, using letterhead for faculty positions seems to be the convention. And not using letter head seems to imply a weakness that needs to be addressed in the application.

      • Dale permalink*
        November 30, 2010 16:39

        This captures Jennifer’s view as well, Greg, and seems to be standard practice in your field. How it came to be that way–that one applies using letterhead–says a lot about the tenuousness of the job market in the field, I think. You are of course right that being “out of the profession” is the black mark of the plague in your field, but sometimes one is having a baby or working a job to cover the rent while finishing an article, while someone with letterhead is quite likely just a “der die das” lackey killing time and praying.

        If the letterhead is from a good place, I can sort of understand the appeal. Were I getting my PhD at Stanford, I would want to plaster that name all over the place. However, if I have a one-year stint at Southwest Whatever State College, am I not telegraphing that I am desperate by using their letterhead? In the end it’s kind of ironic that one has to use the letterhead when candidates are crafting, with much sweat and blood, multipage cover letters that outline in detail one’s intellectual path.

  8. joehab67 permalink
    October 19, 2012 19:23

    I agree with Greg. Being in committees, the majority of faculty use their institution’s letterhead, and the ones who don’t are in disadvantage. This is true for folks in temporary positions (such as postdocs) as well as faculty. In fact, when I was applying for academic jobs in the past (already tenured), a senior faculty told me I should use the university letterhead. As for the comment that one would be using university resources to apply for another job, I agree. But folks can do what I did: I printed letters using my printer at home, and used the university electronic templates for letterhead. I also printed my own envelopes.

    • October 20, 2012 09:15

      Good point about using one’s own resources as a compromise. Makes sense to me, and this comment thread highlighted the differences in views between the faculty and non-faculty tracks.

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