Reference Requests and How to Survive Them

January to March is traditionally the peak time for people to change jobs.  If your employee leaves, you may be asked to give a reference.  What are the pitfalls and how can you avoid them?



Do I have to answer?

In most cases you have three choices:

  • Provide a full reference.
  • Provide a factual reference only.
  • Politely decline.

A full reference

Your former employee has worked tirelessly for you for years and you want to sing their praises.  Maybe you want to warn every other employer on the planet about them.

Any reference you write must be fair, true and accurate. Stick to facts wherever possible.  If you are commenting on something like quality of work, make it clear that this is your opinion.  It may not be their’s. Use phrases like “met/exceeded our Company’s standards”, “in my opinion…”

Be careful

Don’t say something bad unless you can prove it. If you thought someone was stealing from you but they resigned when you challenged them, don’t mention it. You have not been through a disciplinary procedure.  They have not given their defence.  You have no proof, only suspicions.

If the new employer finds out the reference you have given is not “fair, true and honest”, you could be sued for damages.  If you say something negative, which you cannot prove and the job offer is withdrawn, you could be sued for liable.  For these reasons, many Companies simply give a factual reference.

A Factual reference

A factual reference does what it says on the tin. Just states the bare facts. Was employed from this date to that date, as this job title.   Never say you only give factual references if it isn’t true. Doing one thing for one and one for another may be tempting but difficult to explain if asked.

Politely Decline

Most employers are under no obligation to provide a reference. The exceptions being:

  • Where your ex-employee is joining a regulated industry (such as the financial services).
  • Where you have a written agreement to do so.

Can I comment on sickness absence?

You may be asked to comment on sickness absence.  You can confirm how much time they have had off but not why.  You may think you are being helpful but it is a breach of confidentiality.

Who should write our references?

When your ex-employee gives the name and address of their referee, they expect a good reference.  They might choose a friend to write it.  Through ignorance or loyalty, that friend may say things you don’t agree with.  The trouble is, if it goes out on your headed paper or from your Company email, you’re liable for what has been said.

Limit who can write your references to the appropriate people in your Company.   Make sure everyone is aware of your policy and make it a serious disciplinary offence to breach it.


If you have any concerns about anything above or need any help, please do contact me.

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