This section provides guidance to members of staff who may be asked to write references for students. It aims to save time, minimise problems and create a more effective end result. It also seeks to clarify important legal obligations. It does not cover references for fellow members of staff (where other considerations apply), or references written in a private capacity (although the legal situation may be similar). See also Reference letter template (PDF).
Key points on writing references for students
- The principal aims of providing a reference are:
- to confirm the accuracy of the statements made in an application;
- to give an opinion as to the candidate's suitability for a post, a further programme of study, or general potential.
- Ensure that the reference is factually accurate and complete, referring to student records.
- Clearly differentiate statements of fact and opinion. 'On performance to date, she is likely to get a first class degree' is opinion, but 'she will get a first class degree' can be construed factually.
- Only express opinions that are relevant, and that you are competent to give. 'I believe that X is well-suited to the post', is appropriate, whereas, 'X will be a great success in the post' is probably not.
- Try to be fair, bearing in mind the duty of care owed to both the subject and the recipient of the reference. Approach requests for writing references letters positively - everyone has at least one or two good qualities which can be mentioned.
- Avoid ambiguous or coded language. If your knowledge of the candidate leads you to a definite opinion, then express it. However, less definite feelings (negative or positive) should not be aired, or hinted at.
- If you receive a request for a reference but are unable or unwilling to give one ensure the refusal is communicated carefully to avoid implying a negative reference. Alternatively ensure someone else can do it.
- References should not include anything that you would not be prepared to show the individual you are writing about.
- Observe return deadlines scrupulously.
Requests for telephone references are increasingly common. This approach needs to be handled with care. Often the conversation is unstructured and referees can be more easily tempted to say negative things about candidates which they would not put in writing. ‘Off the cuff' remarks, even if not directly relevant to a working environment, can be particularly damaging. Telephone conversations with referees are sometimes recorded (although referees are normally told this is being done). So generally speaking, if you receive a call asking for information about a candidate, it is better to ‘phone back with the details after you have thought about what you want to say. Always confirm the information you have provided either by fax or letter.
Legal Small Print
There is no legal obligation on anyone to provide a reference. However, once someone has agreed to do so, he or she must act lawfully. More particularly:
- A referee has a duty of care to both the subject and the recipient of a reference to avoid making any negligent statements within it, otherwise he or she might face a civil action for negligence (and a claim for damages for any financial loss arising from such a reference being acted upon).
- If the subject of a reference is defamed orally or in writing because the contents of the reference were knowingly untrue and given with malice intended, the referee might face a civil action for defamation or malicious falsehood.
- The inclusion of a disclaimer of responsibility at the foot of a written reference does not of itself protect the writer from such actions.
- Industrial tribunals, particularly when considering cases of alleged discrimination, may order the disclosure of confidential references.
These legal points should not deter anyone from providing a reference, whether in writing or orally. However, being aware of them should encourage referees to be accurate, honest and fair, and not to make statements which purport to be true if the referee does not know, or honestly believe, them to be true.