Reference Requests about Staff

These guidelines are intended to help staff prepare references of a consistently high quality. The guidelines are for members of staff writing references in the context of their employment – i.e. references on behalf of their students, as a Head of School/RI/Service or line manager etc.

It does not cover references where the individual is acting in his/her private capacity (e.g. a character reference on behalf of a friend or neighbour). If you are challenged over a reference you have given, please refer the matter to your territorial Human Resources Manager as soon as possible.

Writing a reference for a member of staff 

  • A reference must state whether it is written on behalf of the University or in a personal capacity.  If it is written on behalf of the University, the reference should be on University headed paper, signed and dated. If an electronic copy is to be retained in the short term it must be held on the referee’s University server.
  • If email is used, the correspondence must be sent from a University account. As it is important to maintain a high level of security of information and information transfer (and storage) personal accounts must not be used for this purpose.
  • A reference must be factually correct as far as is practical and state within what parameters the reference is given e.g. from a line manager, colleague etc.   It should be written in an appropriate business-like tone and should contain only facts and opinions that can be substantiated. For example, it would be appropriate to state that an individual was dismissed for gross misconduct due a finding that they committed sexual harassment, if these were the facts of the case.
  • Any evaluative comment in a reference must be clearly identified as such.  An opinion, within a reference, about the individual’s suitability must be based on facts available to the referee.
  • The referee should check facts, such as dates of services/posts held etc with central records rather than rely on their own memory.
  • A reference originating from the University is exempt from a Subject Access Request submitted direct to the University in line with data protection legislation, though the recipient of the reference may release the document at his/her own discretion.  There is no requirement by the recipient to seek the referee’s consent.
  • A Subject Access Request may expose carelessness either as to matters of fact or in the formulation of opinion in the reference therefore the referee has an obligation of openness with the subject of the reference as to it content.
  • A reference must not be ambiguous, use coded language, or allude to issues that are not explicitly mentioned in the written reference. Don’t allude to something untoward in the reference or indicate you will discuss it verbally or “off the record”.
  • It is appropriate for a line manager to give an indication of total number of days and periods of absence in the reference but typically no details of the illness should be included.
  • A reference must not provide any sensitive personal data, such as health information, without explicit consent (i.e. in writing) from the member of staff concerned. Further advice should be sought from the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Team. 
  • If a referee is not able or willing to provide a reference then the refusal must be neutral and not imply a negative reference without a reason. There may be issues on which you are asked to express an opinion about which you have limited knowledge, e.g. honesty or integrity. Therefore it is more prudent to state that no evidence exists for you to doubt the particular quality exists rather than state categorically the candidate possesses it.
  • Locally held copies of references should not be retained once the employee has left the University for more than one year after date of leaving. 
  • Ideally, references should not be given over the telephone as the information is received by only one person and maybe re-interpreted from their notes to the interview panel. If it is necessary to give a telephone reference all the afore-mentioned points apply and it may be useful to limit the information given to essential facts and follow up with a fax, letter or email.
  • If you are asked to give an unsolicited reference (i.e. for a person who has not, to your knowledge, cited your name), it is advisable to limit the information you reveal to the facts.

References received for members of staff 

  • References should not be kept in School/RI/Service files, they should be forwarded to Human Resources for storage in the central personal file.
  • If a subject access request is received for either recruitment or promotions, copies of the references will be sent to the applicant.  References received for members of staff will be retained in the staff member’s personal file but if a reference is sought after one year, new references will be requested.
  • References no longer form part of the data protection regulations for subject access requests.  Although we do not require to release them to applicants/staff who request them, we have decided in the interests of transparency, we will continue this practice unless you specifically detail on the reference that it is a confidential reference and should not be disclosed.