An employee in need of a reference may be moving on to a different job role for all sorts of reasons, for example, if they are relocating, due to other personal circumstances, or simply because they want a fresh start or they are looking to progress their career. However, whatever the reason, they will almost certainly need a positive endorsement of their character and credentials from a previous employer to be able to secure another job. The provision of a good reference can often mean the difference between being hired or not.
When it comes to writing a reference for an employee, either where an employer has voluntarily agreed to this, or is under an obligation to do so, there are certain best practice “do’s” and “don’ts”. In this guide for employers, we explain what to include in an employee reference letter, as well as what not to include.
Do employers have to provide a reference letter?
There is generally no legal obligation for an employer to provide a reference letter for an exiting or former employee, unless they operate in a regulated industry, such as financial services, or there is an agreement to do so. The employment contract could make provision for a reference, or this could form part of a redundancy or settlement agreement.
However, in any circumstances in which a previous employer is either obliged to provide a reference, or agrees to this, it must be fair and accurate. This means that, in some cases, it may be better to politely decline to provide a reference, rather than say anything negative. Needless to say, writing a reference should never be used by an employer as an opportunity to sabotage an individual’s attempts to secure employment elsewhere. The reference is instead a chance for an employer to support an employee in recognition of their service, in this way maintaining a positive professional relationship, where paths may cross again, as well as demonstrating the organisation’s professionalism to the wider working community.
A reference should act as a way for an experienced professional to appraise the qualities and skills of an exiting or former employee, helping any future employer to make the correct call when thinking about hiring them. It gives a prospective employer a third-party perspective of a person’s strengths and qualities when they are considering that candidate for a role.
What should an employee reference letter include?
There is no right or wrong format when it comes to writing an employee reference letter, but unless a pre-set form is provided on which to write the reference, following a business letter format is most appropriate. This should be on headed paper, including the date of the reference, the name of the referee’s organisation and relevant contact information, as well as the contact information for the recipient. A reference email letter should also have a clear and concise subject line citing the candidate’s name, the job role they are applying for, if applicable, and the purpose of the email.
As for the contents of the reference itself, this can be brief and to the point, or more detailed, depending on how much the referee has to say about the candidate. However, importantly, if a reference is too short, it may convey the impression that either the referee does not know the candidate very well or does not fully endorse them. Equally, a reference that is too long runs the risk of inundating the prospective new employer with too much unnecessary information, and looking overly-zealous and unprofessional. The reference letter should therefore be concise and to the point, focusing on a few key matters, and typically no longer than one single-sided page in a traditional and legible typed font.
In all cases, the reference should start with a factual context, explaining the capacity in which the individual worked for the referee’s organisation and for how long, including their job title, as well as their start and end dates. As the overall purpose of a reference letter is to explain why another employer should select a candidate, and what qualifies that candidate for the role for which they are applying, the reference should also set out the employee’s work skills, attributes and accomplishments. It should specifically address the individual’s suitability for a role, making it clear to any future employer that the individual in question is worth hiring and will be a positive asset to their business.
When an employer is asked to provide a reference, it is always best that the reference is written by someone who knew the exiting or former employee, ie; someone who had worked with them directly and is familiar with their work. In this way, that person will be able to fairly and accurately comment on the employee’s skills, attributes, accomplishments and character. However, the referee must be somebody suitably senior within the organisation, such as a line manager, providing the necessary authority to comment on the employee’s strengths as a candidate for their next employer and suitability for another role.
However, much will depend on the size of the organisation. In cases where it is not possible for the reference to be written by someone who directly knew or worked with the employee, the person writing the reference should refer back to any HR files containing the employee’s work records, including attendance and performance records. This may also contain a CV which can be used as a basis upon which to make constructive comments.
In circumstances where it is impossible to comment with any accuracy or fairness on anything other than the employee’s job title and employment dates, the reference letter should be limited to this to avoid saying anything misleading. Alternatively, the employee could be asked for a copy of their CV, as well as an outline of the job for which they are applying, so that the reference can be angled accordingly. The more information an employer has when writing a reference, the easier it will be to make this both informative for any prospective employer reading this, and positive on behalf of the employee.
In any event, in cases where a direct request for a reference has not come from another organisation, but from the employee themselves, you may need to ask the employee where to send the letter and to whom this should be addressed, as well as the deadline date and what format they would prefer the letter to be in. The referee should also ask if there are any particulars or detail that the employee would like to be included in the reference.
What should an employee reference letter not include?
The purpose of an employee reference letter is to provide positive support for an exiting or former employee in securing employment elsewhere. This could simply be to reward them for their loyal service, as well as to support their career progression or aspirations in another organisation, or simply because it is the right thing to do. This means that, in most cases, the reference letter should not include any disparaging remarks about an individual.
If the employer has a choice, where they are not under any obligation to provide a reference, it is better to say “no” than to write a negative reference that could damage any attempts by a person to be re-hired. In this way, the employer is not actively causing that individual any harm and potential loss, for example, if a job offer was withdrawn because of any negative reference provided, even if what the reference contains is true.
Where an employer has an obligation to provide a reference, it can include details about an individual’s poor performance and if they were sacked, but only if any statements made can be backed up by clear and cogent evidence in support. If the referee feels that they have no choice but to state something negative, they must still try to make the reference balanced and fair. However, it may be best to first discuss with the exiting or former employee the fact that any reference would be negative, to see if they would still like one to be provided. It is also open to the referee to simply stick to the neutral facts, ie; the persons job role, together with their start and end dates, without adding anything more.
Can you give an employee a bad reference?
References should always be accurate and fair. It may therefore be possible to suggest that an employee would not be suitable for a role by including details and facts such as their length of service or that they were dismissed from the organisation. An employee may see this as a bad reference, but it would be allowable provided the reference is accurate and the employer genuinely and reasonably believes the statements to be true.
If a reference is not correct – for example, it is misleading, inaccurate or discriminatory – the employee could challenge it. This would usually mean approaching the employer in the first instance to try to resolve the issue. If this does not result in agreement, the employee may be able to bring a claim against the employer, either to the Employment Tribunal or civil courts, depending on the circumstances.
How to structure an employee reference letter
Below we set out the basic structure of an employee reference letter, in this way illustrating what a good reference letter should include and how this should read:
Salutation: begin the letter with “Dear Mr/Ms Last Name.” If these details are not clear, the letter can simply be addressed “Dear Hiring Manager” or “To Whom It May Concern”.
First paragraph: the opening paragraph should be used to explain the factual context in which the referee knows the candidate and why they are qualified to write a reference letter on the person’s behalf. This should also explain the capacity in which the individual worked for the referee’s organisation, including their job title, as well as their role and responsibilities, and their start and end dates of employment with that organisation.
Subsequent paragraphs: depending on how detailed the reference is to be, the second, third and fourth paragraph(s) should set out the candidate’s skills, attributes and accomplishments, as well as their suitability for the role for which they are applying. This information should focus on the person’s strengths and what they can contribute, ie; on the personal traits that benefit the candidate in a professional setting. It can also be useful to share specific examples where that person successfully applied the skills required for their new position, for example, if the person is applying for a managerial role, the focus should be on the person’s leadership and communication skills.
Closing: the reference should always close with a clear recommendation. The closing paragraph should also be signed off with an offer to provide further information, if needed, or to answer any questions. The letter must be signed with a signature, handwritten, followed by a typed name. If the reference is contained with an email, this should be signed off with a typed name and contact details.
Example employee reference letter
Below we set out an example of an employee reference letter:
Dear (Recipient’s Name)/To Whom It May Concern,
I have been Jane Smith’s supervisor at Company X for the past 5 years, where she worked as a senior sales representative, from 1 September 2017 to 31 September 2022.
Jane has a great work ethic, both individually and as a team player, and consistently met her KPI’s year-in year-out. She was personable, reliable, hardworking and enthusiastic. Our organisation puts a premium on initiative and willingness to learn, and Jane never failed to deliver on either front. Just one example of this was Jane’s suggestion for regular internal meet-ups, where more senior rep’s could answer questions from more junior rep’s about their work. She was the first to take advantage of the knowledge and tips these meet-ups offered.
We were very disappointed to see Jane go, but fully support her decision to progress her career in a more senior sales rep role, for which I would recommend her, without reservation.
If any further information is required, or you have any questions about the candidate in question, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Head of Sales, Company X
Mobile: 07947 448185.
This reference letter is only a template and can be edited to best fit the individual. If it needs to be longer, the referee can expand on the benefits or achievements of the employee. If there is not much to write, they can be more brief and stick to the essential information.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists provide guidance to employers on all aspects of workforce management, including advice on dealing with employee exits fairly and lawfully. For expert advice, contact us.
Reference letter FAQs
How do you start a letter of reference?
It is always best to start a letter of reference by explaining the context in which you know an individual and for how long you have known them. You can go on to discuss any relevant credentials and characteristics.
What should I say to give a good reference?
To give a good reference for a former employee, it’s always best to use positive expressions, portraying them as a strong candidate that would be an asset to another business, for example, you would “recommend the person without any reservation”.
How do you write a good reference for an employee?
A good reference is one which makes it absolutely clear to any future employer that the individual in question is worth hiring for the role for which they are applying and will be a positive asset to their business.
What do employers look for in a reference letter?
Future employers may be looking for various skills, attributes, accomplishments and personality traits in an employee reference letter, but provided the reference is positive overall, this will usually help to support the employee in securing employment elsewhere.
Last updated: 17 October 2022