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How to write references for members of staff

How to write references. An employee’s reference is a significant document, often making the difference between offering or refusing them a job. This article will look at the specific issues you should have in mind when writing references for your employees.

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In a recently reported case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal has highlighted the importance of thinking carefully when issuing references for employees. In this article, we look at your legal rights and obligations when giving a reference, and how to minimise the risks of legal action. In this case, the claimant was successful in her claim that she had been victimised, in breach of sex discrimination legislation, after an unfavourable reference from her previous employer resulted in the withdrawal of a job offer, and the Tribunal even extended to the new employer who withdrew the job offer. She was awarded compensation of £7,500 plus interest in respect of the injury to her feelings, and the case has been sent back to Tribunal to consider compensation for loss of earnings. This case illustrates why you should take great care when writing references. You must ensure it is true, accurate and fair to avoid potential legal action by either the employee or the new employer. Do I have to give a reference? There is no legal obligation for an employer to give a reference about its employee, but it is unusual not to do so. Plus it can be very unhelpful to your employee and their future employees. Imagine how difficult you would find it to recruit if no former employer ever gave you a reference. What to include The obligation upon you is to provide a "true, accurate and fair" reference, which does not give a misleading impression. It is perfectly possible to give a true and accurate reference, but still to give a misleading impression in that reference. If you have described your employee as extremely competent and hard-working, but in fact they have been dismissed for incompetence, their new employer could take legal action against you, as they will argue that one of the reasons why they took on the employee was because of your glowing reference. If you have a member of staff who is extremely competent in the way he carries out his duties, but left your employment because he harassed another member of staff, simply stating that he was extremely competent at his job would be potentially misleading. That doesn't mean to say that any reference you supply should read like a biography, but it should deal with the most important issues and give a balanced over-view of their whole employment. Stick to the facts. It can be dangerous to give a personal opinion about an employee – unless you can back it up by evidence. For example, you may have an employee who has had frequent short-term absence. It would not be appropriate to infer that their reasons for absence were not genuine, unless you have evidence to the contrary. Similarly, if you going to praise an employee for the work that they did, you should be able to demonstrate their positive results. Always insist on supplying a written reference, so there can be no dispute over what was actually said. References and confidentiality The Data Protection Act applies to references. You do not have to give your employee a copy of a reference that you have written about them. It is important that on all references that you send, you mark them strictly private and confidential. If you are going to supply references about your current employee to another employer you may wish to ensure that, before supplying that reference, the employer concerned gives you an assurance that the reference will be kept confidential. For help with providing references, members of the Forum can call us now on 0845 130 1722 or, alternatively, download a reference letter template here.