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How to Write a Good Reference

Does completing references for ex employees make you clam up with anxiety for fear of giving a bad reference?

Fear no more! Here are my top tips on completing employer references.

You don't have to complete reference forms that are sent to you.

Often, the new employer will send you a form to complete asking questions about the employee's integrity, honesty, ability to work in a team bla bla bla.

Do not fill that stuff in. You cannot complete it objectively and it can't be backed up with evidence.

I never complete those forms, and if I do, I fill in the information that I am happy to give, factually & objectively.

If you're not happy completing a form sent to you, you can simply send a letter on your company letterhead with the information you are happy to provide.

Avoid giving opinions wherever possible.

I was once asked for a reference for a factory worker who had applied to work in a care home for elderly people. The new employer asked me to comment on the person's suitability to work with vulnerable adults.

How on earth could I comment given that I'd only seen them work with vegetables?!

My opinion on that employee would be irrelevant and, most likely, incorrect.

If it's not a FACT, don't put it in the reference.

Include factual information

This is stuff like their start date, the date they left, their job title and their salary whilst employed by you.

Absence information is technically factual, but if the employee had lots of absence because of a health condition that prevented them working in your business, it doesn't mean they will have the same problem in a different role. So I'd be inclined to leave that out.

Disciplinary information is also only factual to a point. Our test for giving disciplinary sanctions does not include proof beyond all reasonable doubt. So again, does it really mean anything if someone has a verbal warning on file? Probably not.

Reason for leaving IS factual, but at this point I would either state that they resigned or were dismissed. If the reason for leaving was dismissal, I would add whether it was for conduct, capability, redundancy, SOSR or a statutory illegality.

If your business is regulated by DBS and the new employer also conducts regulated activity with vulnerable adults or children, you have a duty to disclose more information around dismissals for gross misconduct such as abuse.

What about character references?

In days gone by, an employer would send a good ex-employee on their merry way with a glowing character reference to help them find a new job. Lovely.

But what about the ex-employee the employer is glad to see the back of? I bet they didn't get a glowing reference! So when they rock up to their new prospective employer with no carefully written letter from their previous employer, what are their chances of getting the job?

Providing these sorts of references is outdated and can still land you in lots of boiling hot water because you haven't treated employees fairly, based on your own opinions of them. Sure it's a nice thing to do, but if you wouldn't do it for everyone, including people you dismiss, don't do it.

I shall repeat the reference mantra:

Keep it factual!

Still not sure?

The absolute best tip I can give you about references is: would you happily stand up in court and defend that information to a tribunal?

If the answer is yes, crack on.

If not, leave it out.


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