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How to write a reference for an employee

3-minute read

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Catriona Smith

Catriona Smith

13 June 2022

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When a member of staff leaves their role in your business for a new job, they may ask you for an employee reference.

Businesses don’t usually have to give a reference, but if you do find yourself writing one it’s important to be aware of what you can and can’t say. Whether you have one employee or many, read on to understand more about what to include in a reference letter so you can best support your people when they move on in their careers.

When to write an employee reference letter

There are only two instances when you legally have to give a reference:

  • if you’ve previously said in writing that your business will provide one
  • if your employee’s job is a ‘controlled function’ regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority or Prudential Regulation Authority

Even if you don’t legally have to write a reference, it can be a nice thing to do to show support and gratitude for your people.

On the other hand, some businesses have an employee reference policy that says they won’t give detailed references for employees at all. This will usually be mentioned in a staff handbook and might restrict what you can say, or who’s allowed to give references. We’ll go into more detail about the difference between a basic reference and a detailed reference later.

Tips for writing a reference for an employee

If you’re going ahead and writing a reference, there are a few things to remember:

  1. It must be fair and accurate – the law says you must be ‘fair and accurate’ in your reference to protect workers’ rights, so if you give any opinions they should be backed up by evidence.
  2. Keep it simple and to the point – a reference can be as short or long as you like, depending on whether you choose to write a basic or detailed reference, but make it simple to read and concise.
  3. Avoid irrelevant personal information – it’s against the law to include information on ‘protected characteristics’ when writing a reference, except on rare occasions where a characteristic is an ‘occupational requirement’.

What to include in an employee reference letter

Many references simply include the job title and dates or employment.

But if you want to go into detail, here’s a full list of things that you might include in an employee character reference letter:

  • current job role and length of service
  • key achievements
  • examples of performance or activities that show relevant skills or attributes
  • reason they left the job
  • your contact details – let the reader know you’d be open to chat more if they want to
  • signature – don’t forget to sign your recommendation letter (either digitally or by hand)

You can also mention if an employee’s conduct means you don’t think they’d be suitable for the job, for example if they were dismissed or disciplined while working for you.

An employee could try to claim damages in court if anything you say is misleading or inaccurate though, so make sure you only include facts and that you can back your reference up with evidence (such as warning letters or performance reviews).

Employee reference letter sample

A basic employee reference is a short summary of your employee’s employment. This typically includes their job role and length of time they worked at your business.

For example:

Alex worked as Head Chef at Ottello’s restaurant from July 2021 to June 2022.

Some employers might choose to provide a more detailed character reference. This typically includes a summary of the individual’s skills and experience. You may also include examples of their strengths and weaknesses in relation to their next step in their career.

For example:

I’d be happy to recommend Jesse for this role at your company. She worked for Jones’ Accountancy for two years and I was her manager.

As a bookkeeper, Jesse was responsible for recording costs and expenses, processing invoices, reviewing bank statements, and chasing unpaid invoices. She won Employee of the Month in March 2022 for her outstanding contribution to our year-end accounting process.

It’s been a pleasure to work with Jesse and I wish her all the best for the next step in her career.

If you’d like to discuss more, you can get in touch by phone [your contact number] or email [your email address].

Employment law is a complex topic and this article should be treated as a guide only. If you’re still unsure about anything, Acas has detailed information for employers on workplace rights and rules.

If you have legal expenses insurance as part of your Simply Business policy, you have access to a number of useful services through DAS Businesslaw (you’ll just need your voucher code found in your policy documents to register).

DAS has a legal advice helpline, available whether you’re facing a serious legal issue or just want to check something with an adviser. They also offer a range of legal templates and guides to help you with managing HR and best practice as an employer.

Do you have any unanswered questions about writing an employee reference? Let us know in the comments section below and we’ll do our best to help.

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Catriona Smith

Written by

Catriona Smith

Catriona Smith is a content and marketing professional with 12 years’ experience across the financial services, higher education, and insurance sectors. She’s also a trained NCTJ Gold Standard journalist. As a Senior Copywriter at Simply Business, Catriona has in-depth knowledge of small business concerns and specialises in tax, marketing, and business operations. Catriona lives in the seaside city of Brighton where she’s also a freelance yoga teacher.

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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