How to give a professional, objective reference

As you yourself develop your career and climb the ladder you will either be the reference seeker or the giver to some of your team or subordinates.

As a referee this is an important task to take on, as it can mean the difference between an employee being give the position and the offer of employment or not. So if you believe in karma and you’re truly trying to help a former standout employee get to the next level then you should be thoughtful about how to give a proper recommendation.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll always be doling out glowing praise. The best practice is to be honest for both the new employer’s and employee’s sake. Be professional on the information you give – don’t be personal.

The best way to handle awkward territory in the reference are as follows: -

1. Check with Companies HR on reference protocol

Before you say yes or no to a reference request, check with your human resources department first. They may have rules in place for whether you can even speak about an ex-employer or colleagues’ previous working experiences.

Most companies have a formal policy whereby their managers are instructed to refer all reference requests to HR so do not go against the company practise and find yourself in hot water yourself. The last thing you want to do is give a reference that violates company policy and local laws, especially if this information could be perceived as unfavourable.

Your company should have an employment policy on giving references, which will state:

  • whether you provide references or not
  • if you give references, whether they are full or basic
  • which employees or levels of management can give references
  • if verbal references are permitted
  • if personal references are permitted
  • what should be included in references
  • to whom any reference requests should be sent

2. If the answer is no, be honest.

Whether it be company or corporate policy that is stopping you giving a reference to a colleague, or the fact that you consider their work less than stellar, have this discussion and do not hide the fact of your thoughts if you were to act as a referee.

We are of the opinion that unless you can balance saying something negative with something nice, then you will not be the best objective referee for them. Honesty is probably the better way to handle this request, so all sides are clear both now and in the future.

Being honest might cost you a relationship with this person, but it’s still the best way to handle it, rather than giving a brutal reference on your perceived perception of their skills and ability.

3. Don’t be afraid to lead the conversation with the hiring manager

As well as answering the reference prospective employer or recruiter questions, feel free to share other skills you feel have not been covered in the questions asked.

Give them details, examples and anecdotes from why you feel that they could be a good asset to the company. Volunteered information is often perceived as a valued reference of a candidate, colleague or co-worker you felt went above and beyond.

4. If you agree to be a referee, be honest on what you plan to say.

Don’t be afraid to give a heads-up on what you think their strengths and weaknesses were when they worked for you. Keep the reference position-specific that isn’t personal, but rather about their job fit and what they can and will bring to their future employer.

4. Be honest, objective and helpful - don’t exaggerate.

Striking the right balance between a candidate’s strong suits and weaker points is a tricky, but crucial, part of the reference giving process. Remember this reference will validate or dismiss the interviewer thoughts on whether this person is a good fit for the job.

Do not put them on a pedestal that they cannot surpass. By all means, put them in a good but do not stretch the truth in any way.

5. Use positive and actionable words. 

When you’re giving a verbal reference or drafting a reference letter, you want to make sure to use both positive and actionable language when describing the candidate. This can help the potential employer get a better sense of the candidate and may also present a more positive image.

  • Use verbs such as collaborate, cooperate, and promote.
  • Use nouns such as team-player, asset, and responsibility
  • Use adjectives such as reliable, intelligent, good-natured, diligent

Do not include any of the following in a reference

  • Discrimination
  • Defamation
  • Malicious falsehood
  • Negligent misstatement
  • Claims of Breach of contract

How to give a good reference

To avoid the consequences of a bad reference, you need to give one that is good – in the sense of not being misleading. A good reference is one that is truthful, even though it may mean the employee is not offered the job.

Some tips on giving a reference are:

  • Give an honest answer that, ideally, you can back up with documentation if necessary.
  • Keep to the facts as much as you can.
  • Give your honest impressions of the employee.
  • Don’t exaggerate, either negatively or positively.

Of course, under normal circumstances, you are not obliged to give a reference at all so it is always an option to politely decline to give a reference or refuse to give a reference other than what you are willing to put in writing, ie: dates of employment and position held.

In Summary

When providing a reference, referees and employers have a duty to be truthful, accurate and fair and must not give misleading information. You need to be mindful that notice still needs to be provided to the employee unless the employee has given false information or has committed an act of gross misconduct in their employment.

Answer only the questions that you are comfortable answering. A manager should only comment on the areas of the employee's skills and experience about which he has direct knowledge. Avoid answering question that are not applicable to your knowledge of the candidate.

Employers need to be aware that when providing references (written or oral) that their assessment of an individual’s suitability for a job is not linked to a protected characteristic (unless it is objectively justified). Furthermore, future employers should carefully consider all of the facts, and if necessary, seek advice before withdrawing a job offer based on a reference.