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Before writing a reference for either a member of staff or a student it is useful to understand the role of references, types of reference and the laws that apply to references:

This will enable you to deal effectively, fairly and legally with the reference.

Some general guidelines about writing references are given below and a quick checklist of the key points is also provided.

The role of a reference

A reference has two main roles:

  • Confirm facts. It confirms the accuracy of statements made in application forms
  • Provide opinions. It provides your opinion as to the candidate's suitability for the job or course and their potential for the future. Be careful not to confuse fact with opinion

When writing a reference you have a duty of care to both the subject of the reference and the recipient of the reference. A reference must always be true, accurate and fair. It must not give a misleading overall impression and must not be unduly selective. If you do not satisfy these requirements it might be possible for the subject of the reference to claim defamation, malicious falsehood or negligence. The recipient of the reference might claim fraudulent misstatement or negligent misstatement.

Types of reference

There are two main types of reference that you might be asked to give:

  • Corporate. This is a reference about an employee/ex-employee or student/ex-student that discusses issues relating to the University
  • Personal. This is a reference written as a result of personal knowledge about the subject of the reference. IMPORTANT: A personal reference should not be written on University headed paper or be sent from a University email address

The University's normal liability insurance covers members of staff and the University as a body against any claims that might arise from a corporate reference. It does not cover personal references.

If you are asked to provide a reference in respect of financial status for mortgages, lettings or similar for employees, you should always pass such requests to the Human Resources (HR) department.

If you are asked to confirm the status of a student, you should pass the request to for undergraduates or the appropriate Faculty Office for postgraduates.

Requests for a personal or academic reference for a student should be sent to the student's tutor in the first instance; though in some circumstances it may be more appropriate for a project supervisor, or similar, to be the main referee.

General guidelines for writing references

  • Do I have to provide a reference?

For employees there is no obligation to provide a reference unless the employer has entered into a confidential agreement. However, it is a normal expectation that references will be provided.

For students there may be an implied contractual term in the University/student contract to provide a reference. A failure to provide one could disadvantage a student and be seen as discriminatory.

  • How should I treat an unsolicited request for a reference?

If you receive a reference request for someone who has not to your knowledge given your name as a referee you should not supply the reference unless you check with the subject that they have given your name.

  • How should I treat a request to give a reference over the telephone?

Avoid giving out references over the telephone as you have no control over what the person at the other end of the phone actually writes down. Any notes they take could potentially be disclosed to the subject. If the reference is genuinely required urgently it would be better to use a standard reference that has already been agreed with the subject and use a fax machine to send it.

If providing a reference over the telephone is unavoidable then good practice is to confirm what was said via email or letter to ensure there is a record.

  • Who should see the reference?

It is always possible that the subject of a reference may have access to the content of the reference at some stage (see Access rights to references ) so you should only include comments on an individual's performance that you would be happy for them to see. It is good practice, if possible, to show the reference to the subject before you send it. In some cases it may be useful to keep on file a basic reference that has been agreed with the subject. This is useful if you know you are going to be asked to give a reference after the subject has left the university, for example, for a student after they have completed their course.

It is also good practice to check a reference with another colleague who has had dealings with the subject.

  • What should I include in a reference?

The reference should include an indication of how long you have known the subject and in what capacity.

All facts contained in references should be, as far as possible, verifiable from documents on the subject's file. It is important that the information is up-to-date. It is fair to assume that after 6 years of the subject leaving employment/study at the University it may no longer be appropriate to provide a reference.

You may be asked to express an opinion on the subject's suitability for a job/course and their potential for the future. Make sure opinions are clearly stated as opinions. If you are asked for an opinion on an issue on which you have limited knowledge, such as the subject's honesty and integrity, use qualifying phrases such as, " I know of nothing that would lead me to question X's......".

Be careful not to confuse fact with opinion.

Do not use ambiguous or coded language.

You must not disclose any sensitive personal data without the explicit consent of the subject. Any sensitive personal data should be dealt with according to the guidance in Disclosing sensitive personal data in references.

  • Should I mark the reference as Confidential?

It is good practice always to mark a reference as Confidential in case you have inadvertently included any sensitive personal data. However, marking it in this way will not guarantee that it will not be disclosed to the subject.

  • What if there are disciplinary issues?

See the section on Disciplinary issues/Formal review

  • What should I keep?

You should put a copy of a reference you have supplied into the subject's file.

Things to do now

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