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Tips and Advice on Writing Reference Letters

This article discusses samples, templates and examples for writing letters of references for employment, character or personal references. 

Useful Tips on Making the Most out of a Job Reference

  1. "Do it yourself": If you require a reference from your employer it sometimes helps to draft one yourself for your manager or HR department - many managers do not have the time or are unsure about what to write, so ask if a draft letter would be helpful. 
  2. Format: Below are some examples and templates for reference letters which cover most situations. If the addressee is not known or the letter is required for general purposes, use 'To whom it may concern', instead of 'Dear Sir or Madam'. If the addressee is known then use the full name and address as this will increase the professionalism, and therefore the credibility, of the letter.
  3. Keep it professional: Reference letters should be recently dated, short, to the point and professionally presented. Poorly presented, two-year-old, 5th generation photo-copied letters full of spelling mistakes and coffee stains will almost certainly do more harm than good. The overall quality of the letter reflects directly on the person who is the subject of the letter.
  4. Check company policy: Generally, if your organisation has policies for managers writing reference letters for employees or ex-employees ensure that the rules are followed (for instance requiring letters to be approved by HR department). Ensure you are acting within your authority if you are writing on behalf of an organisation using the official letterhead. If, as a manager, you wish to give a reference but are not permitted to do so by your organization - which would be very unusual - you might consider providing one in a personal capacity on your own private letterhead.
  5. 'If you can't say anything good, don't say anything': When writing a reference letter never include any negative criticism or defamatory comments as this could constitute libel. The same applies to giving references over the phone - if they are verbally negative they could be deemed slanderous. There are also implications for verbal and written references stemming from Age Discrimination Laws and  Equality Legislation and related best practice.
  6. Data protection: In the UK the 1988 Data Protection Act has important implications for employment and education references. See the section dealing with Data Protection and 'Subject Access Rights' in relation to references below. This is essential for employers, and very useful too for individuals, in terms of rights of access to references.

Spelling note: These tips and samples generally use spellings based on UK-English common form, for example, 'recognise', 'organise', 'specialise', whereas US-English uses the 'ize' spelling. Other words ending with 'our/or' - such as endeavour/endeavor, favour/favor - also vary in UK-English and US-English. Please change the spellings in your own references letters to suit your situation.


Reference Letters Structure/Template

The general structure for a reference letter is as follows:

  1. Addressee name and address (if known)
  2. Date
  3. Salutation ('To whom it may concern', or 'Dear Sir or Madam', or 'Dear <title> <surname>')
  4. Confirm dates, job title(s) capacity, and salary and benefits details if required/appropriate.
  5. Confirm that the person's performance and attitude was (at all times) satisfactory/exceeded expectations or standards.
  6. Briefly explain the person's responsibilities (optional)
  7. Briefly describe their skills/qualifications/strengths/characteristics (optional)
  8. State that you would willingly re-employ the person if the opportunity arose (optional, and very reassuring for the reader)
  9. Offer to provide more information if required (optional)
  10. Yours faithfully (or 'Yours sincerely' if writing to a named addressee)

Note. It's a matter for your own discretion how much praise and positive information to include in the letter, hence the optional items.

Below you will find specific templates for employment, character, personal and trade reference letters.

Spelling note: These references letters tips and references letters samples generally use spellings based on UK-English common form, for example, 'recognise', 'organise', 'specialise', whereas US-English uses the 'ize' spelling. Other words ending with 'our/or' - such as endeavour/endeavor, favour/favor - also vary in UK-English and US-English. Please change the spellings in your own references letters to suit your situation.


Employment Reference Letter Template Sample

Addressee name and address (if known)
Date

To whom it may concern,

I confirm that (name) is/was employed as (position) with this organisation from (date) to (date/the present day), and was/is paid (salary, plus bonus and benefits as applicable).

Their job of (position) carries the following responsibilities (describe briefly the job). (Name) is skilled in (details of skills) and is also (characteristics - e.g. reliable dependable, a good communicator, etc).

I would happily re-employ (name) as I consider him/her to be a valuable member of the team, who consistently achieved good results and delivers all expectations.

Yours faithfully/Best Wishes,

Your name


Character or Personal Reference Letters

Certain situations require character reference letters of a more personal nature, such as:

  • Character testimonials or references relating to court proceedings
  • For a position in non-business organizations such as councils, trusts, clubs, or societies
In these cases, the same principles mentioned above should be followed: 

  1. If you need a personal or character reference always ask the writer if it would help to provide them with a draft. Writing references is time-consuming and difficult for many people - offering to provide a draft may sound cheeky, but it is often necessary and much appreciated by the writer (incidentally called the 'referee').
  2. Do not defame a person in writing or verbally when providing a reference
  3. State only positives or nothing at all

Note. When offering to provide a written character reference relating to a person's court proceedings this may lead to being asked to appear in court as a character witness. Therefore, ensure that the reference is reflective of what you are comfortable stating in a court of law.


Example and Template for Personal or Character Reference Letter

Addressee name and address (if known)

Date

To whom it may concern

I confirm that I have known (name) for (number) years.

(State relationship - social, business, working together in some other capacity, club, activity, project, etc.)

At all times I have found (name/him/her) to be (state characteristics - e.g., dependable, reliable, hard-working, conscientious, honest, peace-loving, courteous, etc. - to be as helpful as possible think about what the reader will most prefer to see, in terms of satisfying concerns, or seeing evidence of relevant required skills or characteristics).

I'm happy to provide further information if required. (optional)

Yours faithfully/Best wishes,

Your name


Character Reference Letters For Court Appearances

Below is an example of the sort of letter you can write if asked to provide a character reference for someone you know who is to appear in court on a criminal charge. Here are some points to consider when writing a character reference letter for court appearances:

  • First, ensure that you are personally comfortable with the responsibility of providing the character reference and potentially being called to appear in court as a character witness (the accused legal team should normally advise you on how best you can help - if in doubt ask). 
  • When using the sample letter below you can substitute the relevant character aspects of the accused that you wish to endorse or support, which should logically relate to and counter and the type of behaviour alleged in the court charge. 
    • For instance, If the charge relates to violence you should try to endorse and describe peace-loving attributes; if the charge relates to dishonesty, obviously try to endorse and describe honesty attributes. Integrity endorsements are obviously helpful for any situation because they hopefully support the validity of the accused person's own statements in court.

Note. Ensure that the reference is reflective of what you are comfortable stating in a court of law. It is important to bear in mind that whatever you write you should be comfortable and capable of reliably repeating, and potentially providing examples, if required, under oath in court. Both the prosecution and defence sides have the right to force witnesses of all sorts to appear personally in court, and while most written statements and letters do not lead to a requirement to appear in person, the possibility exists.


Sample Character Reference Letter (Written by the Character Witness)

Date

To whom it may concern (or Your Honour, or as advised by the legal team)

Person's Full Name (heading)

I have known (name) for (number) years as (state relationship - business associate, staff member, socially, etc).

I can confirm that she/he is a person of great integrity, is extremely dedicated to his family and work, and is entirely peace-loving. (substitute character descriptions as applicable).

Furthermore, (add further character descriptions and/or examples of the person's behaviour and/or history supporting the above testimonial.)

For your information, I am (personal statement building your own credibility - details of position held and any other details that help build your own credibility, particularly any experience in judging the characteristics or behaviour referenced above).

Yours faithfully/Best Wishes,

Your Name

Position (if applicable)


Trade Reference Letters

In certain fields, suppliers may ask organisations to provide a trade reference letter, which they will present to a new customer seeking assurances of quality of service, reliability, etc. Below are two examples of trade reference letters relating to the quality of service and for payment and creditworthiness. 

Here are some basic principles of writing trade reference letters:

  1. Use a letterheaded sheet, and date it. 
  2. The subject of the letter could be a company, a sole trader or freelance supplier
  3.  Use the name of the person or the company as the heading.
  4. Letters like this typically begin with 'To whom it may concern', which enables the reference to be used for different people requesting one.
  5. Then insert the heading, and follow with your statement(s). It will help you to write the letter if you ask the supplier what they feel will be most useful to include. 
Important. If you are writing a letter like this on behalf of your organization for one of its suppliers, ensure you obtain necessary approval from a director or appropriate authority (typically a finance or purchasing director), and in certain circumstances (for significant or very important references) you could actually ask the person in authority to sign the letter and send it in their name.


1. Trade References Letters Sample (for Quality of Service)

Date

To whom it may concern

New Company Ltd (the supplier or person who is the subject of the reference)

I confirm that I have dealt with New Company Ltd since 1998, during which time they have provided my business with excellent support in the areas of website engineering, site optimisation, search engine analysis and site submission. Their work has been a major factor in our website's success, helping it to become one of the most visited resources of its kind on the Internet.

I can confidently recommend New Company Ltd as a solid and reliable supplier, and experts in their field.

Yours faithfully/Best wishes

(Name and Title)


 2. Trade Reference Letters Sample (for Creditworthiness)

This is an example of a trade reference letter relating to a person's or organization's credit-worthiness and reliability for making payments. Suppliers or customers may ask for such a letter, to present it to a new supplier who is seeking assurances of their financial reliability and credit-worthiness. 

In these scenarios it is generally advisable to:

  • Use a letterheaded sheet, and date it. 
  • The subject of the trade letter could be a company, a sole trader or freelance supplier
  • Use the name of the person or the company as the heading.
  • If you are writing a letter like this on behalf of your organization for one of its suppliers, ensure you obtain necessary approval from a director or appropriate authority (typically a finance or purchasing director), and in certain circumstances (for significant or very important references) you could actually ask the person in authority to sign the letter and send it in their name.


Date

To whom it may concern

New Company Ltd (the supplier or person who is the subject of the reference)

I confirm that New Company Ltd has been a customer of ours since 1998, during which time they have always made payments reliably, in full and on time.

Yours faithfully/Best wishes,

(Name and Title)


Requesting a Reference

How to ask someone for a Reference Letter as an Employer

Below is a template for employers seeking references from current or previous employers or other character referees  for job applicants, candidates and interviewees. The template can be amended for sending to other nominated referees (eg., character reference providers). When requesting a reference letter it is advised to consider the following:

  1. Permission: When seeking a reference about a potential new employee or job candidate you should ask permission of the person involved. Failing to divulge information relating to data obtained and held about an individual also has implications in the UK under the Data Protection Act. Additionally (in the UK), you can help inform yourself and others about how the Data Protection Act relates to employment references (and other types of references, such as for education) by reading and enclosing a copy of the official Good Practice Notes relating to Data Protection and References, explained and available in the Data Protection and Access Rights section below.
  2. Templates: Sending a template or 'Pro-forma' containing relevant criteria makes it easier for the provider than simply asking to provide a reference. Sending a specially created form for references, therefore, increases your chances of getting a reply at all, and also getting the answers about the person's characteristics and history that you most need.
  3. Transparency: In any event, being open, transparent and cooperative about seeking references displays trust, and demonstrates positive and ethical standards - all of which of course are very appealing employer qualities in the eyes of most employees and especially high calibre employees. In addition, it may be useful to show the form that you would use to obtain a reference from their past employers to each job applicant as a means of obtaining their consent.
  4. Being Progressive: You may even ask the applicant or job candidate if they would like anything else of relevance to be added to the form below, as might enable the clearest and most helpful outcome from the exercise. This will allow you to take a more progressive approach in the recruitment process and see the candidates full potential.
  5. Adhering to organisational policy and employment law: Employers should check with their relevant employment law department or advisors before creating, adapting and using letters and forms relating to references and recruitment so that legal implications can be properly considered. International employment law varies around the world, and changes over time, for example, the Ageism legislation effective in the UK in October 2006. When requesting and providing references it is important to act within all relevant laws relating to discrimination (gender, race, disability, etc) in addition to the laws surrounding libel and defamation, etc.

Using the below template:

  • Either incorporate this template within a letter or attach it to a covering letter, and send it to the nominated reference provider(s).
  • You will improve response rates if you send a stamped addressed envelope with the reference request.
  • Adapt and amend this template to suit the situation - and seek approval from the person concerned for the final version. Leave sufficient space for comments between each point. If you include every possible criterion on your 'master' form, you can delete the criteria which do not apply for each reference request situation.
  • Spelling note: These references letters tips and references letters samples generally use spellings based on UK-English common form, for example, 'recognise', 'organise', 'specialise', whereas US-English uses the 'ize' spelling. Other words ending with 'our/or' - such as endeavour/endeavor, favour/favor - also vary in UK-English and US-English.  Please change the spellings in your own references letters to suit your situation.


Requesting a Reference as an Employer Template

(your logo, address, etc)

Confidential - Request for Reference

Date

Dame of applicant

The above person has applied for a job as  ______________ with us and has suggested you might provide a reference or has agreed that we can contact you for one. I'd be grateful for you to provide whatever details you feel able to according to the criteria below. Please do not write anything that might compromise you or your organisation (if applicable), although where clear evidence exists of significant negative history, especially of a serious nature, then we'd be grateful for such information.

If you'd prefer to speak on the phone please call me on ________________

Delete as applicable:

1. The above person was/is employed with us as ________________ date(s) ___________________

(provide estimates if precise dates are not readily available)

2. General character

3. Attitude

4. Relationships with others/peers/subordinates

5. Team-working

6. Personal integrity and honesty

6. Reliability

7. Calmness under pressure

8. Competence (state skills if appropriate)

9. Ambition

10. Overall performance in past role(s) with your organisation

11. Qualifications/Training attained

12. Why did the person leave?

13. Would you re-employ the person if a suitable vacancy existed?

14. Any other comments?

15. Under the Data Protection Act (UK) the person named above would normally have access to the information provided here if requesting it from the receiving organisation. The organisation providing the reference is exempt under the Data Protection Act - but the organisation receiving the reference is not. If there are strong reasons for protecting confidentiality (risk to the referee, etc) please state them here. For further information on the law relating to data protection and references see: www.ico.org.uk.

16. Please be aware also that references are subject to legislation relating to equality and discrimination, which from 1st October 2006 also includes age.

 

Respondent's/Referee's signature____________________ date______________

Respondent's/Referee's name and title________________________

On behalf of (employer/organisation, if applicable) ___________________________

Please return this form to __________________________

Reference number__________________

Contact details of sender of this request (email, phone, etc)________________

 

Please make a copy of your reply for your own records and if in doubt about anything you'd like to state on this form please seek advice before writing and sending a response.

Thank you for your assistance.

Your name


Data Protection Act and Employment References - The Most Important Rules

  1. The law in the UK (Apr 2006) is that employers giving references are exempt from the 'Subject Access Rights' section of the Data Protection Act, but employers receiving references are not unless there are extremely strong reasons for preserving the confidentiality or anonymity of the reference provider (a personal risk to the referee, for example). 
  2. In most cases, reasons for withholding information will not outweigh the individual's rights to 'subject access' as the Data Protection Act defines it. The arbiter in cases where a dispute might arise, is the Information Commissioner (ICO), being the government department responsible for ensuring compliance with the 1988 Data Protection Act.
  3. The practical implications of the Data Protection Act are that regardless of a referee's request (or perception) that the contents of a reference will be withheld from the person who is the subject of the reference, it is unlikely that the receiving organisation can do this, should they actually want to. People requesting, giving and receiving references need to understand this.
  4. See the ICO's Good Practice Notes on 'Subject Access and Employment References'  from the ICO website (April 2006). This good practice note clarifies how the Data Protection Act 1998 applies to employment references. The recommendations also apply to other types of references, such as those provided for educational purposes. This document is ICO copyright and reproduced with permission.
  5. You can enclose a copy of the Good Practice Note with the request for a reference if you feel it will be helpful for the recipient, in which case check with the ICO that you have the up-to-date version (link below).

If you're in a real hurry the ICO summarises 'Recommended Good Practice' relating to References and Data Protection as follows (from the ICO website, extracted April 2006):

"In most circumstances, you should provide the information in a reference, or at least a substantial part of it, to the person it is about if they ask for it. Even if the referee refuses consent, this will not necessarily justify withholding the information, particularly where this has had a significant impact on the individual, such as preventing them from taking up a provisional job offer. However, there may be circumstances where it would not be appropriate for you to release a reference, such as where there is a realistic threat of violence or intimidation by the individual towards the referee. You should consider whether it is possible to conceal the identity of the referee, although often an individual will have a good idea who has written it. If it is not reasonable in all of the circumstances to provide the information without the referee's consent, you should consider whether you can respond helpfully anyway (for example, by providing a summary of the content of the reference). This may protect the identity of the referee while providing the individual with an overview of what it says about them."


Am I still allowed to Request a Reference under the GDPR?

Generally, the GDPR states that individuals are entitled to request any personal data that an organisation holds about them. Due to their nature, references will contain personal data which is why it is important to operate under a lawful basis and in line with the GDPR when processing this data.

Requesting a Reference as an Employer under the GDPR

If you are requesting a reference as an employer your lawful basis for processing this personal data may be:

  • To be able to fulfil the employer side of the contract
  • To comply with any legal obligations that arise
  • You can prove that you have “legitimate interest” for processing this data
  • You have obtained explicit consent by the subject (in this case the subject would be the applicant) to process their data 

Providing a Reference under the GDPR

If you are asked to provide a reference:

  • You need to ensure that explicit consent that been obtained from the subject (meaning your former employee) which allows you to lawfully process their data
  • It is advised that you ask for a formal reference request which has been signed by your former employee in which he/she explicitly consents to all the data that the new employer is asking for in their reference
  • Generally, it is recommended that the reference you write contains factual information only (as the templates above suggest) and avoid including sensitive data such as absence data

Most importantly, whether you are an employer asking for a reference for a prospective employee or you are a former employer receiving a reference request – when you are dealing with references that go beyond just containing factual information, it is recommended that you obtain the employee's explicit consent by asking them to sign a declaration which informs them of all the information that will be shared in the reference.


If you need any more information about this or any other aspect of data protection and to check for updates to the Good Practice Notes, contact Information Commissioner's Office:

Website -  www.ico.org.uk 
Phone - 01625 545745
E-mail - mail@ico.gsi.gov.uk


See also

Other useful free information and easy guides to personal and organizational development, plus other writing techniques, templates, samples and examples:

And on a lighter note an amusing letters example: