If you've been asked to write a reference for one of your students, you must stick to what you know for a fact, says Anna Preston, acting manager, careers education and guidance at Warwick University.
“Don't comment on anything that cannot be substantiated from records and information held in the department,” she advises. The phrase “to the best of my knowledge” will come in handy.
John Arnold, professor of organisational behaviour at Loughborough University, says you need to avoid generalised personality descriptions such as “pleasant” or “lively” unless you can be specific about examples of the student's behaviour.
Encourage students who want you to write a reference to keep you up to date with their plans and give you a recent CV. It is also useful to look at the student's mark profile.
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, says employers are increasingly interested in verifying information.
Unless the job is specifically related to the student's degree programme, details about the courses he or she studied are unnecessary, he says. But he recommends drawing attention to how much progress was made in the course of a degree and to anything exceptional.
Arnold says you should also state in the reference how long you have known the student and in what capacity.
If you know a student very well, you don't need to tell employers everything you know about him or her. It is not generally necessary to talk about mental health problems, for example, says Terry Jones, communications director of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services.
If you don't know a student well enough, don't agree to give a reference, although you must let the student know of your refusal before your name has been put down as a referee, says Jane Artess, research manager at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit.
You can also refuse if you don't feel you can give a good reference, but you need to be careful here. If your refusal is for discriminatory reasons, the student could make a claim, says Nick Timmings, partner at TMP Solicitors, which specialises in employment law.
He says there is no reason why you shouldn't give a bad reference as long as it is fair, accurate and true, and you can prove it.
But bear in mind that the person will probably have the right to see whatever you write under the Data Protection Act. If he or she suspects that there could be any discriminatory reason for writing it, legal action could ensue.
You also need to bear in mind disability discrimination. If you say someone is not bright enough to do a particular job, you have to make sure that the difficulties that you have observed are not linked to dyslexia or another disability.
Artess argues that you should never put anything in a reference that you would not say to someone's face. Indeed, she recommends showing your reference to the student.
That doesn't mean giving everyone a glowing reference. As well as owing a duty of care to the student, you also owe it to the employer. If you write a glowing reference when you know it isn't true, and if that person is subsequently employed to the detriment of his new employers, the employers can sue, warns Timmings.
Artess says references should be tailored to the job applied for, and it is therefore useful to have a job description before you start.
If you have agreed to be someone's referee you also need to make sure you will be around to give the reference. “If you are on sabbatical you could cost a student an interview and possibly a job,” Preston says.
Finally, don't get too worried, as employers aren’t likely to put much store by your reference. Kamal Birdi, lecturer in occupational psychology at the Institute of Work Psychology at Sheffield University, says research has shown that references tend to be a poor indication of future work performance.
• Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services:www.agcas.org.uk/
• Higher Education Careers Services Unit: www.hecsu.ac.uk