How to write a reference for an employee

You can retain a former employee's loyalty with a good reference

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Monday, Aug 01, 2022

Writing a reference for an employee can help you maintain working relationships with any talented staff who leave your business.

A reference can be brief, revealing merely the basics of the person's former job; or it can have plenty of detail in it that gives the new hirer an idea of the sort of person they'll be adding to their workforce.

Myth-buster! Let's sort this out straight away: you can write a negative reference for an employee. But, you must be fair and accurate.

You can't lie.

Usually, when an employer doesn't think they can write a positive reference about the person, they politely turn down the request.

So, while you can write a negative review, in most cases it's better to turn down the request than risk them suing you for negligent misstatement.

With that myth busted, let's go through our advice for writing a reference letter.

How do you start a reference letter?

Let's presume you've chosen to write a positive reference for an employee.

You're writing a professional letter, so let's get the basics right. Your address goes on the top-right of page 1.

Put the address of the party making the request on the top-left.

Now, before you start writing the bulk of the letter, you should decide how brief or thorough you plan to be—this choice will affect the structure of your letter.

Begin with a professional greeting: Dear Sir/Madam (if you know their name, you should use it).

What can a reference include?

No matter whether you're writing a reference for an employee who's leaving soon, or someone who worked for your business five years ago, you can include:

  • Job title.
  • Salary history.
  • Dates of employment with your business—there might be a start date, promotion start date(s), and a leaving date.
  • Job performance.
  • Responsibilities in their role.
  • Professional conduct.
  • Whether they resigned or you dismissed them.

How to write a reference for an employee

So, after your greeting, confirm that you know the employee. Mention their job title, salary history, and dates of service with you.

Then, if you've chosen to be thorough, give some information (remember, fair and accurate) about the employee's role, performance, successes, skills, and professional conduct.

State in clear terms that you recommend the person for a job.

Finish with a simple sentence telling the employer that they can contact you for more details if they wish.

Sign off with Yours faithfully if you don't know their name. If you do know it, use Yours sincerely.

You don't have to say yes when someone asks you for a reference

First, remember that you can always say no when someone asks for a reference. In many cases, employers refuse to give a reference to their former or outgoing employee if they don't think they'd be able to give a positive recommendation.

There are many reasons why you would turn down someone's request for a reference.

You might not know the person well enough—how long did you work with them? How long were you their manager or supervisor?

If you don't think you could write a positive recommendation for the former employee, tell them. If you think someone else in the business could write a positive reference, suggest this.

When you turn down someone's reference request, be polite. Apologise and explain why you won't do it, but avoid making your refusal sound like a personal criticism.

There will be times when, despite you turning down someone's request, they persist in their attempts to get a reference from you. They might do this because they believe that a reference from your company would carry more weight on their job application than a reference from a different former employer.

Or, if you're their only former employer, they might persist in asking you because they don't have many other options.

When handling somebody who won't take no for an answer, clarify that your organisation's brand and its integrity are at risk each time you make a recommendation. Stress once more that with this in mind, you don't feel comfortable writing a reference for your former employee.

Keep an up-to-date reference policy for employees

If you don't want to give references, you could make this clear in employment contracts and your company handbook. Of course, make sure you word it appropriately.

Your references policy should include any other terms or conditions that you have regarding references.

Who will request the reference?

You can expect a reference or recommendation request to come from either your outgoing/former employee, or the company who are on the verge of hiring them.

In some cases, an agent or agency acting as a third party may contact you for the reference.

Whether it's the person, the company, or an intermediary who contacts you, respond to all requests in a fair, professional manner. Remember that when your business endorses someone to another business, your brand is at stake.

There might be times when a hirer asks you to fill in a form, with score boxes and spaces for you to answer questions about the employee, rather than an open request for a letter.

Ending on good terms can be promising for the future

Don't forget, when you write a positive reference for an employee, you're showing them that you endorse them as they take the next step in their career.

By looking after working relationships with skilled people, you preserve the possibility that your former employee might one day return—with more skills and experience—looking to add value to your business.

Need help?

Unsure how to respond to a reference request?

Don't worry, BrightHR gives its customers free employment law advice.

Request your free demo with BrightHR and let us deal with all of your pesky employment law problems.

Share this article

Have a question?

Ask away, we’ve got lightning fast answers for UK business owners and employers powered by qualified experts.

More on employee references

Two business women in conversation

Handling employee references

Checking two references before hiring someone is a standard practice for almost every organisation. References help you weed out unsuitable ...