Referee, beware blowing whistle

June 23, 2006

If you are asked to provide a job reference for a student, make sure your facts are correct, avoid generalisations and discriminatory statements, and mind your p's and q's, as Harriet Swain outlines

You know the name. Wasn't he that shifty-looking chap who everyone thought stole a bottle of whisky at the Christmas party? Better warn prospective employers about alcoholic and kleptomaniac tendencies.

Better not. 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 that support the assertion and show what you mean.

If employers send a reference form that asks for information you don't readily have, don't get drawn into giving answers that reflect your best guess, he says. Tell the employer what you know, in your own words rather than following the form, if necessary.

He says you should 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 so that you can comment on particular strengths and weaknesses.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, says employers are increasingly interested in verifying information. A good reference will therefore provide basic information about who the student is, what course he or she studied and when, and what degree classification was awarded.

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 does think it is important to draw attention to how much progress was made in the course of a degree and to anything exceptional about the student.

It helps, of course, if you know who he or she is. Arnold says it is worth checking that there is nothing important on a student's file that you don't know about. You should also state in the reference how long you have known the student, in what capacity, and how much you have seen of him or her.

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 them 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 that it is true.

But before you really get stuck in, bear in mind that the person you are describing will probably have the right to see whatever you write under the Data Protection Act. If he or she dislikes the reference and suspects that there could be any discriminatory reason for writing it, legal action could ensue. You need to be particularly careful if the student has made a complaint against you in the past. If you then give a negative reference, he or she could potentially claim victimisation, Timmings warns.

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 reference extolling the virtues of a person 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. "You mustn't say nice things just because you want to please the person you are giving the reference about, unless those things are true," he says.

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. And telephone references are not a good idea because there will be no written record of what is said. If you have no alternative but to give a telephone reference because of time constraints, she advises following it up later with something in writing.

Finally, don't get too worried about your reference writing, since employers won't set too much store by it. 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 very poor indication of future work performance.

Further information

Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services:

Higher Education Careers Services Unit:


Know who you are talking about

Tailor your reference to the job description

Back up any statements with examples

Stick to the facts

Be aware of the chances of legal action from both sides

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