It happens suddenly - one day you're senior enough to write someone a reference, and you might only find out when you're asked for one. But it’s not always as simple or easy as you might think. Here's how to write a reference.
How to write a reference: preparation
Before thinking about how to write a reference, make sure you feel confident enough to write an ideally positive recommendation. If you do not know the person well or do not think you can speak highly of the person’s skills or abilities, it is fine to turn down the request.
Ask the person for a copy of their CV, even if you have known them a long time. They may have new accreditation or achievements that merit highlighting, and you should provide as much current information as possible. If the reference letter is for a specific opportunity, ask for a copy of the job posting.
Do’s and Don’ts
Be fair – References must be fair and accurate. Any problems can be included as part of the reference as long as it is backed up with evidence such as poor performance letters or records of any disciplinary action.
Try to make positive points - If there are areas of concern these should be discussed with the applicant prior to agreeing to be their referee and supported by written documentation.
Include credentials - People writing reference letters should always provide a brief introduction regarding their credentials and relationship to the parties they are endorsing.
Professional skills - A positive reference letter for employment purposes will cite specific qualities that relate to the position being sought.
Reference character – Good reference letters will attest to a person's character by including information and examples that support an overall track record of good behaviour.
Use ambiguous language – If you have a definite opinion on the applicant you need to express this clearly, and leave as little room as possible for misinterpretation.
Offer irrelevant opinions to the position applied for. Specifically, do not offer information about any perceived weaknesses that are not relevant to the job.
Give defamatory opinions or refer to any topics that might lead to or be perceived as discrimination.
When it comes to how to structure a reference - the first paragraph of the letter should explain your connection to the person you are recommending. Write about how you know them, how long you've known them, and why you are qualified to write a reference letter on their behalf.
The middle paragraphs of the reference letter should contain information on the person you are writing about, including why they are qualified, and what they can contribute to their potential employer. If necessary, use more than one paragraph to provide details.
Be specific and share examples of why this person is a qualified candidate. If you can, relate specific instances where you observed the person successfully using the skills required for the position.
It is important to strike the right balance regarding length. A letter of recommendation should be over one or two paragraphs – anything shorter suggests you either do not know the person well or don’t fully endorse them. However, you want to keep the letter as concise as possible, and focus on a few key points, so avoid writing more than a page. Three or four paragraphs is an appropriate length.
Disclosing details about former employees must comply with data protection obligations. Providing a reference is likely to involve processing personal data, so employers must provide a legal basis for processing that data. In relation to a reference, the most likely legal basis is that the employee has consented to their data being processed.
The employer must not provide sensitive personal data in a reference, such as information about the health, race or sexual orientation, without first obtaining the employee's explicit consent. To obtain consent, the employer should write to them, stating why it wishes to process data, to whom the data will be provided and for what purpose the information will be provided.
Don’t be daunted
While writing a reference for the first time may be daunting – by following the tips above, you’ll ensure you write a well-written, professional recommendation.
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