The truth about employment references

I write about a dozen employment reference each year for the Taylor Bennett Foundation alumni.  A well written reference can take some time to write and can make all the difference to whether or not you are offered a position.  Usually new employers ask ex-employers for a reference once they decide to offer you a job and often the contract is sent to you ‘subject to references’ – meaning that they have the right to withdraw the offer if the references don’t come up to scratch.

So, how should you go about getting a good reference?

Be punctual
Every single reference request I receive asks whether the candidate is punctual.  EVERY SINGLE ONE.  If poor timekeeping is your thing then you need to snap out of it sharpish.  Everyone is late sometimes – the trains get delayed, your cat dies, the washing machine floods the kitchen – exceptional circumstances which any reasonable employer will be sympathetic about.  However, if you are habitually late, even just a couple of minutes each day, you’re not being professional and it will be reflected on your reference.

Be honest and trustworthy
This is another question every reference requests asks, “is the applicant honest and trustworthy?”  I can’t think of a time when I’ve ticked the “no” box for this one, but I absoultely would if I had reason to.

Don’t pull sickies
Most reference requests will ask how many days you’ve had off sick in the past 12 months.  The person writing the reference is legally obliged to tell the truth so they will have to say if you’ve had lots of time off.  If you’ve had time off for a genuine illness then there’s nothing wrong with that – we all get the flu now and then.  If you’ve had a considerably amount of time off for sickness you might want to address that with your employer before you get to the reference stage and if it’s  a one off thing – like you broke your leg and had to have six weeks off –  it’s not likely to cause issues.  However, if you are someone who habitually takes time off work because you have a hangover, or feel a bit down in the dumps or are dreading a particular meeting and you pull a sickie, keep in mind that those days will also appear on your reference and the employer may question why you take so much time off for illness.

Ask for the reference
Quite often I receive a reference request and the employer won’t tell me what the job is that the candidate is being interviewed for.  It’s then really really difficult for me to tailor the reference to be as useful as possible.  Usually, this is because the request has come from the HR department of a very large organisation and they send out standard requests with little room for personalisation and I then have to guess what the position might be.  It would be much. much easier to write a decent, relevant reference if the person the reference is for actually tells me in advance that I should expect to receive a reference request for that particular role.  If nothing else, it’s just good manners to write to the person who you’ve put down as a reference to say “I’ve interviewed for this job and they want to offer it to me subject to a reference.  Would you mind writing me one please?”

Blow your own trumpet
It may be that your current or previous manager writes a lot of references.  I write a lot of them and I usually have to go back to look at the applicant’s appraisal to make sure I am highlighting the things they are really good at.  When you write to your referee it might be worth including a list of ten things you achieved during the time you worked with them.  Something along the lines of “I know references can be a pain to write so I thought it might be helpful to list some of the things I achieved when I worked there – please don’t feel obliged to include them in your reference but hopefully it will make writing this reference a bit easier.”  I’d love an email like that – it would make my life so much easier and would mean I’d mention the most relevant achievements in a reference.

Say thank you
Once you’ve started your new job, write to the person who gave you the reference to say thank you.  You may need them to write another one in the future and it’s a good idea to be polite about it.


Finally, a couple of truths about references

It is not illegal to write a bad reference.  
There’s a myth that pops up now and then that ex-employers cannot write a bad reference and it’s simply not true.  They cannot write a dishonest reference and that’s a different thing entirely.  References must be accurate and truthful or there may be grounds for ex-employees to sue.  That means if you have had a disciplinary action in the past, it is perfectly legal for your employer to write about it in a reference.  However, some firms now prefer to just not give a reference at all, rather than write one which truthfully tells of your poor performance, in order to avoid any danger of being sued.   I once had an employee specifically ask me on his last day not to write him a bad reference, even though he knew his performance was below par and that we had given him very direct feedback and adequate time to address those issues and he still failed to do so.  I suggested that perhaps he should not offer me as a referee at all as I would feel obliged to write a truthful reference.

References are optional
Keep in mind that no one  is legally obliged to give you a reference – they can refuse to write one – so good manners are advisable.  If a potential employer asks a previous employer for a reference and they refuse to then alarm bells will start ringing.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Careers