If you have recently been asked to write a reference for an employee, you will want to understand what you can and can’t say in this letter.

We always recommend that our candidates ask employers who know them well and who they believe will give them a good reference. But what if you don’t remember them well enough or can’t find a positive word to write?

And even if you do know and like your employee, how can you show them off in the best possible light?

Ask your employee for suggestions

If you have a good relationship with your employee, ask them how they would want to be represented. It’s ultimately up to you to decide if you think this is an accurate representation of their character. But if you get an honest response, then their words can help shape your reference.

We recommend asking for their opinion in person so that you get the essence of their feelings without copying down what they want, word for word. Remember: This reference ultimately has to come from you.

Match your employee up to the new job spec

If the person asking for a reference is happy to do so, ask them to share the job spec. We advise prospective employees writing their applications to have the job spec in front of them, too, and it doesn’t need to stop there: it can also help you to give your reference more focus and relevance to the job!

Or, if they’re applying more generally…

Sometimes a more general reference will be necessary, as some candidates like to submit references in advance of future employees asking them for one. If this is the case, focus on the job that they have done for you. Ask them where they see themselves three to five years from now, and use that to inform your reference.

What to include when you write a reference for an employee

Each reference should cover the following essentials:

Keep your reference letter short and sweet

A couple of paragraphs will be enough. Make sure to put your reference on headed paper, and include your company’s address and the date, exactly as you would a formal letter and ideally invite the potential new employer to call if they want to discuss further.

Having said that, don’t leave your letter too bare:

Future employers will read between the lines

For most employers, you are only legally bound to provide a confirmation of work duration and the salary at the time your employee left. A reference that is thin on the ground can bestow more meaning than you realise.

Bare references won’t help prospective employers who want to know more about a candidate. In this instance, no news is bad news. With little other than the bare minimum record of what the employee did for you, a new employer will inevitably read between the lines. They might feel you were compelled to write a reference but didn’t want to open yourself up to legal complications. Short references do carry that weight.

It is okay to decline to write a reference for an employee

A negative reference can have legal implications, so be careful and try to avoid writing one. Remember the old adage: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. If you need more support, here are three ways to say ‘no’ to writing a reference.

Respond to a reference request within one week

Keep turnaround fast if you want to help the community – and remember that your employees and their future employer are all part of your network, so be swift!


If you’re struggling to put pen to paper and worrying about how to replace your brilliant employee, send us a message! We’re always delighted to help our clients find London’s best and brightest candidates.