How to write a reference for an employee

Being asked to act as a referee for a colleague or acquaintance can feel like an acknowledgement of your achievements in life.

But should you jump at the opportunity? And if you do agree to be a referee, what should you write?

Can you say no?

An employee has asked you to be a referee. Don’t agree to do it without first considering what you’re going to say and indeed whether you have to give a reference. You can refuse – or at least in most cases you can.

Solicitor Max Winthrop, partner at Short, Richardson & Forth and chair of the Employment Law Committee of the Law Society explains that there is no obligation on an employer to provide a reference for an employee. ‘The only exception is if the employee works for a Financial Conduct Authority regulated firm’.

What to take away: Don’t feel you have to give a reference: you might not have to.

Keep it short and sweet

However even though it might not be the law to give a reference, it might be written into the company policy.

Winthrop says: ‘Most employers will have a policy which will be included in your job contract or works handbook which will say what kind of reference they will give. Many will say that they will only provide a basic reference such as the job title and dates of employment’.

Such a basic reference might not best please the employee looking for a job, but sticking close to the facts does keep things simple.

‘Most employers will want to keep it brief’. Winthrop advises: ‘If you’re writing a reference then be concise, accurate, not too glowing (unless clearly justified) and definitely not derogatory’.

What to take away: If you want to give more than a basic reference be sure that you are being scrupulously fair and neither over enthusiastic about an employee’s skills nor unfair about their lack of them.

Bad reference

Part of being a great employer is all about being consistent. If you are only happy in providing basic references then you should do so for all members of staff, says Winthrop.

‘If you give a reference which is found to be derogatory then you as the referee may be liable for defamation’ warns Winthrop. ‘If you say, for example, that the employee has been absent for 252 days in the last year when it was actually 2.5 days and because of that detail the employee didn’t get a promised new job you could be liable to legal action’.

What to take away: Either do full references for all staff or none. And make sure you are accurate or risk the possibility of legal action.

What to say in a full reference

In a full reference, you cover the person’s skills, ability and experience and their suitability for the role they’ve applied for. You might make comments (or respond to questions from the would-be new employer) on the employee’s strengths and weaknesses pointing out any particular projects they were involved in.

What you must not mention are any of the ‘protected characteristics’ which it’s usually against the law to mention. These are age; disability; race; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; religion or belief; sex and sexual orientation.

What to take away: Keep to the facts. There’s more information here and here on what you should and should not do when writing references

What if it’s personal?

As well as a professional reference, you could be asked for a character reference for someone. Unlike an employer reference, a character reference comes from a third party – not the current or future employer. Its aim is to focus on whether you as the referee think someone has the right characteristics to perform a role.

Being a character referee can feel like an honour that someone asks you to do this for them, but you still need to consider whether you’re happy to give one. You should only give one if you are certain you know that person well enough to do so. If you don’t, say no – though it might be kind to suggest someone else who perhaps will know them better.

What to take away: Treat character references just as seriously as employment ones. Don’t do it unless you’re sure you know the person well.


Don’t feel pressurised into writing a reference. And a short reference is perfectly acceptable. Be careful if you’re going to give a fulsome opinion of someone – you could face problems if what you’re written is seen to be derogatory by the job applicant. Keep to the facts and don’t say anything you are not 100% sure of.

If you’re the person wanting the reference, then good luck with your job hunt – check out this article for advice on what to do before signing that new job contract and this article will help you in your first few days in your new workplace.

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

Related articles