The Ins and Outs of Providing a Professional Reference

Tracey Mottershead

26 September 2016

It’s quite common for an employer to receive a call requesting a professional reference for a previous employee.  Most prospective employers expect or even insist that candidates provide details of professional referees within their application, but what are the obligations for past employers to provide one?

Basically none.  An employer is under no legal obligation to provide a reference for a past (or current), employee, and in these days of increasing legal action it may be the wisest choice.

Providing a reference that paints the employee in a negative light can expose the referee to defamation, misrepresentation or breach of privacy actions. Conversely, painting an overly glowing picture could see the new employer take action for damages as a result of misrepresentation if the employee doesn’t shine as brightly for them.  So what should you do?

Many organisations have a ‘no reference’ policy and simply provide a written statement of employment that details the period of employment, the specific roles performed and possibly the key responsibilities of those roles.  This is the safe option.  But what if you want to provide more?

If you’re happy to provide more information, you must ensure that everything you say can be substantiated, is reasonable and relevant.  Stick to facts not opinion and be sure not to withhold any critical information.  You should also be aware that prospective employers can ‘read into’ questions that you decline to answer.     

If asked to provide a reference

  • Ensure that you have the employee’s consent to discuss them with the prospective employer. If you were not contacted by the employee prior to the call/email, advise them that you will need to speak with the employee before any further discussion.
  • Stick to the facts of the employment relationship – period of employment, role, responsibilities and performance.
  • Ask for specific questions to answer, rather than a “so tell me about Sue Smith…” so that you only discuss areas relevant to the prospective role.
  • If you feel there may be some ‘tricky’ questions you’d rather not deal with, state upfront that you will only confirm employment details, rather than answering some questions but not others.
  • Don’t give opinions as to whether or not the employee would be able to perform another role. You can only comment on the performance you have witnessed.
  • Don’t discuss any personal details of the employee.


If you are in any doubt as to what you should or shouldn’t say, err on the side of caution and decline to provide anything more than a statement of employment.


Disclaimer:  Blogs posted by MMO HR Solutions are for information purposes only and do not constitute professional advice.  The reading/use of any blog posts does not form a consultant-client relationship and such reading/use should not be used as a substitute for professional advice.