Being asked for a reference is a common occurrence but employers should always take extreme care when replying.
It’s not uncommon for organisations to receive requests for references from potential employers about ex-employees. However, providing references can be tricky, and what you say about former employees can land you in hot water if you’re not careful. This is why companies need to have a systematic and professional approach when providing references to avoid any legal action while still being honest about the applicant’s previous job performance.
In this blog post, we will provide guidelines on how to provide references without landing yourself in trouble, as well as a process that managers can follow when faced with providing employee references.
Guidelines for how to write a reference for an ex-employee
Firstly, it’s essential to have a clear policy in place when it comes to providing references. The policy should outline what can and cannot be disclosed by the organisation and ensure that all employees are familiar with it. It is also important to ensure that any reference provided is accurate and fair, meaning it should not give an exaggerated view of the employee’s performance.
When writing a reference, avoid using language that is discriminatory, such as commenting on an individual’s ethnicity, religion or gender. It’s also essential to keep the reference factual and avoid making any subjective comments or opinions about the employee. Use objective language that accurately describes the duties that the employee performed and their contribution to the company.
It’s important also to get written consent from ex-employees before providing a reference. Doing so ensures that the organisation complies with data protection laws while still providing the information requested. If the employee does not provide written consent or raises objections to the reference, the organisation should not provide it.
Process for providing employee references
It’s crucial for companies to have a structured process in place for providing references. When a request for a reference comes in, the employee’s line manager should be informed. The manager should then review the employee’s file and provide an accurate and factual reference.
It’s essential to keep a copy of the reference in the employee’s file to demonstrate that the company provided a reference when a future employer calls the company seeking one. It’s also a good idea to have an HR representative involved in reviewing the reference’s content to ensure that it complies with company policy while staying free of discriminatory remarks if there are any.
Here is an example of steps you can take to have a process in place for providing references:
- Create a policy: Develop a policy that outlines the company’s approach to providing references. This policy should include guidelines on what information can be provided and who is authorised to provide it.
- Train managers: Train managers on the company’s policy on providing references. Make sure they understand the legal implications and the importance of providing accurate and fair references.
- Centralise the process: Designate a central point of contact for providing references. This could be the HR department or a dedicated reference checking team.
- Verify the request: Before providing a reference, verify that the request is legitimate. Make sure the request is coming from a reputable organisation and that the ex-employee has given their permission.
Have a Robust Process to Avoid Legal Risks
Providing references for ex-employees puts organisations at risk of legal action; thus, it’s essential to have a robust policy in place that outlines what can and cannot be disclosed in a reference. It’s also necessary to ensure that managers providing references are trained on how to provide references without getting themselves, or the company, into trouble.
Ultimately, providing a reference can count as a professional courtesy, but it’s not something that employees should take lightly as providing inaccurate or biased comments, be it intentional or otherwise, can have serious legal consequences. Therefore, having a structured process and guidelines in place can help ensure that the process is transparent and professional, benefiting everyone involved in the reference process.
Although remember, if in doubt, employers do not have to give a reference at all.
To see information of a recent case in the High Court concerning the provision of a reference and how it breached data protection rules visit the CIPD website.