These are my notes adapted from a presentation I attended last week, given by Ruth Newman (Bodleian Libraries)
What is the purpose of a reference?
- It provides information about a candidate’s employment history
- It backs up (or not) the statements made in the application form
- It provides an opinion on the candidate’s suitability for the post for which they are applying
For jobs at The Bodleian Libraries, references are sought for the successful candidate once a conditional offer has been made to them – this is to ensure that any information relating to absence or disability is not revealed until this stage in the recruitment process.
Questions asked of referees by The Bodleian Libraries
The above-named has applied for employment within The Bodleian Libraries and has given consent to our approaching you to provide a reference (copy of permission attached). In particular, we would be very grateful for information on the following (where applicable):
- The candidate’s relationship to you as a referee and how long you have known them in this capacity; The dates of the candidate’s employment with you, and job title;
- The candidate’s ability, in your opinion, to meet the stated selection criteria for this post;
- The candidate’s performance during their employment (for example, quality of work, relationship with colleagues, communication skills, attendance and time-keeping);
- The candidate’s reason for leaving your employment;
- The candidate’s current salary / salary on leaving;
- The total number of days the candidate has taken as sick leave in the past 12 months, and the number of occurrences;
- Whether there have been any disciplinary or other formal employment proceedings against the candidate which are still considered ‘live’ (including any in process at present / at the time the employment ended; and
- Whether, in the event of a suitable vacancy arising, you would re-employ this person.
If you do not wish the candidate to see this reference, please mark it “strictly confidential”. Any information you can give will be treated in the strictest confidence. However, you are advised that under the terms of the Data Protection Act, all references are potentially disclosable to the applicant.
References may be written or verbal. If a verbal reference is taken it should be written up and sent to the referee for confirmation that it is an accurate reflection of what they said. Email correspondence is sufficient for this. A conditional offer of employment is made subject to the receipt of two satisfactory references. Alarm bells would include over 10 days’ sickness, negative comments, mention of disciplinary process in progress (6-12 months is the usual ‘live’ period for disciplinary issues). If the references take longer than expected to arrive, the candidate’s start date should be delayed until they have been received, and are considered satisfactory.
Things to consider when reading a reference
- Who is the referee? It is usual practice to use the current and previous line manager as referees, so if the reference is written by someone other than these people, investigate further.
- What have they included, and what have they omitted? Compare their comments against the list of questions asked of referees.
There is no legal obligation to give a reference unless explicitly stated as part of an employee’s contract; however, if the employer normally gives references for staff it will legally be regarded as an implied contractual term.
I have no legal right to see a reference written about me by my line manager, but I can ask to see my personal file once I am in my new job – and it should contain the reference!
There is no legislation specifically designed to cover the provision of reference, but it is covered in other legislation relating to (among other things) disability and sex discrimination.
If you are asked to provide a reference for someone:
- The reference must be given by someone qualified to give the opinions sought – if in doubt, ask for help from your HR advisor
- Reply on headed paper/from your work email account [note: not for a personal reference]
- Reply promptly
- You have a duty of care to the person about whom it is written and to the recipient of the reference, so the reference must be factually accurate, supported by evidence and fair
- It is good practice for the subject of the reference to be aware of its contents, so give them a copy of the reference and discuss it if necessary. Employees should be aware of any complaints or negative comments which will be included in the reference before it is written
- Avoid any personal or discriminatory comments. Comment on the job description and selection criteria, keep the tone professional and refer to the person’s performance at work
- Mark the reference “strictly confidential”
- Bodleian Libraries staff are asked to include a disclaimer e.g. “given in good faith and confidence, without legal liability on behalf of the author or Bodleian Libraries” to ensure they are covered by professional indemnity insurance.
For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.