How To Write A Job Reference For An Employee

March 21, 2023

how to write a job reference for an employee

As an employer, you might be asked to write a job reference for an employee when they move on to a new role.

Writing a reference can be a challenge, especially if you have not had to do one before. In this article, we will take a deep dive into what a job reference letter should be, what your responsibilities are as an employer, and how to get around writing a reference when the review of the employee might be less than positive.

What is a job reference?

A job reference is sometimes known as a ‘letter of recommendation’.

References are usually sought when a candidate has applied for a role, and they have already gone through most of the recruitment process. References can be from employers or colleagues from a professional point of view, but they can also be personal or character-based as well.

Recruiters and potential employers seek references for candidates to see if they would be a good fit for the organization based on performance and skills that were used in a previous role.

The reference letter essentially explains why a candidate should be selected for the role, and it can be used when someone is applying for an internship, a volunteer position, or even when applying for college as well as during the job seeking process.

There are three main types of reference letters that can be used.

  • Professional reference letter: This is usually written by someone like a supervisor or a colleague, and focuses on the specific position and responsibilities as well as skills, qualifications, and contribution to the organization.

  • Character reference letter: This can be written by a family member, a friend, or someone else that knows the applicant on a personal level, and is more about personality traits and attributes that makes them suitable for the role.

  • Academic reference letter: This type of reference is written by a teacher or a professor, referring to education and academic achievements.

Why is a job reference important?

A job reference, specifically written by you as an employer, is important for an employee who is looking for a new role.

The reference should be a positive description of why the candidate is a good choice for the role, describing in depth what they did for your business and what they achieved, as well as the specific skills and qualifications that they used (and gained) while in the role.

What makes this type of reference so important is that it is written by someone who has worked closely with the candidate, so the details describe a fair and balanced overview of why the candidate should be selected.

Before you get started on writing your reference letter, there are some things that you will need to consider.

Do some research before you get started on writing the reference. Get a copy of the candidate's CV first so you know what skills, qualifications, and accreditations they are highlighting, and also try and get a copy of the job description so you can speak to the most relevant skills and abilities to match the requirements of the role.

Other things to think about when writing the reference letter are below:

The Do's of writing a reference for an employee

how to write a job reference for an employee

Get some ideas about what to include in your reference writing from this list of things to consider.

Build your reference around specific examples

Not all references need to be very detailed, but you need to make sure that you include specific examples of positive comments that you make. If you are saying the candidate has excellent communication skills, give an example of what that looked like in the workplace for them, and what the impact was for your business.

Be honest about the employee's performance and potential

The reference letter should always be both fair and accurate, and you need to make sure that you are being truthful about what the candidate is capable of.

Highlight the employee's key strengths and abilities

From the details provided in the resume and the job description, point out (with examples) the key strengths and abilities that match the requirements of the role.

Focus on relevant skills and experience

The skills and experience of the candidate that match what the job requires should be the focus of the reference letter that you write. Again, select the relevant skills and give specific descriptions of examples.

Tailor the reference to the position being applied for

The more you know about the positions that are being applied for, the more tailored and bespoke you can make the whole application. As the reference-seeking point of the application process usually happens quite far in, it should be quite simple to make the reference as bespoke as possible.

Consider including feedback from other team members

If there are skills in the job description or in the resume that you are unsure of, or that you haven't had direct experience of, you might want to consider asking other people from the team for some feedback to add. For example, if you are looking at teamwork skills, you might want to get a colleague to describe a time when the candidate demonstrated excellent teamwork skills.

Offer contact information for follow-up

While in most cases the reference letter might be enough, recruitment teams might want to be able to contact you to ask for some more information about the candidate - so make sure that you add contact details (usually your email address and a phone number).

Make it easy to read and understand

Ensuring the layout and structure of the letter itself are simple and easy to access is a good idea. Whether you are sending it as an email or as an actual letter, include paragraphs and white space so that it is easy to read.

Proofread carefully before submitting

The reference letter is a professional document, so you want to be sure that there are no spelling and grammar mistakes, and that it all makes sense too. Proofread the whole thing properly, including the name of the person you are sending it to.

The Don'ts of writing a reference for an employee

how to write a job reference

There are some specific things that you should avoid when you are writing a reference letter for an ex-employee.

Don't include false or misleading information

If you don’t know something specific about the person, and you have no examples that you can use, then don't include it. Hyperbole can be a turn-off for recruitment teams, and you do not want to come across as insincere.

Don't write a generic reference that lacks detail

While a simple reference letter might be enough - just a simple list of things like dates of employment and simple skills - a generic reference without detail can actually be harmful to the candidate. Take some extra time to give relevant information.

Don't include any confidential or private information

While you want to be truthful about the candidate and their experience at your company, you need to be sure that you are not sharing any information that could be considered too personal or confidential.

Don't exaggerate the employee's skills

While you might want to give the candidate all the opportunities in this next role, it will do them and you no favors to exaggerate what they are capable of. As mentioned before, hyperbole is unhelpful at best, and can cause long-term problems if the candidate cannot live up to the level of skill that you describe.

Don't include negative comments

There is a myth that you cannot write a negative reference for someone - this is not true - but you do have to be fair and accurate in what you are saying. If there are negative comments to be made, either avoid them altogether or phrase them well.

Don't write a reference if you don't know the employee well

If you are asked to write a reference for an employee that you have not had direct contact with, then you can turn it down. The best way to do this is to provide another contact for the recruiter to use who would have more insight.

Don't provide irrelevant personal information

The reference letter should be relatively short, so you should avoid adding personal information or anything that might be irrelevant. You can ensure that this doesn’t happen by keeping to the skills, experience and aptitudes needed for the role they have applied for.

Don't use casual language or slang terms

Remember that the reference letter is professional, so keep away from any casual language or slang terms. You will also want to avoid using ‘corporate’ speak or specific language that is used in your industry just in case it is not broadly understood.

Don’t use discriminatory language

In a similar vein to the above, even if you are describing a negative situation that the candidate dealt with well, you need to avoid using any language that could be considered to be discriminatory - towards the candidate, to customers, or to anyone else.

Don't accept to be a reference if you don’t want to

The last thing to think about is that you do not have to complete a reference for anybody if you do not want to. Some companies have it built into their contracts that they will not provide references.

If at any point and for any reason you do not feel comfortable helping a candidate to get a new role, you can turn it down. If you can give another contact in the organization who can help, that would be good, but it is not compulsory.

Key takeaways

The reference letter is a professional document, and it should describe the candidate in enough detail to recommend them for the position that they have applied for.

Make sure that the reference letter contains the relevant information, such as the job title, dates of employment (including any promotions), and the responsibilities of the role, as well as examples of the specific skills, experiences, and competencies that match what the role they have applied for needs.

Take the time to add the details and examples so that the recruitment team has all the details they need to be able to offer the job to the candidate.