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Top Tips: how to write a reference

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As a senior manager, you are likely to be asked to write a reference for team members who are moving on. But what is the protocol here? Too glowing a reference can mislead a prospective employer, too negative an assessment might even leave you open to litigation for defamation of character or for slander. And an inaccurate or unfair reference will reflect badly not just on you as an individual, but on the council as an employer. So it’s important to get this right. Sticking to some simple guidelines should make the process easier.

  • Consult with HR. Your personnel department will have a standard format for a staff reference which has been agreed across the organisation. They will sort out the basics confirmation that the person was employed for the period they say they were, and the nature of the job they carried out. As a manager you may be asked to add a personal reference, saying the individual has had a satisfactory work history with the council, and that you are unable to give any reason why they would not be a reliable employee in another role.

  • Be honest. It’s essential to be as accurate as you can, not only for the sake of the new employer but also the reputation of your organisation. It is possible to give a neutral reference, which simply spells out start and finish dates, and duties carried out. And if there is any problem with the staff member, it may be necessary to give a negative reference, explaining why the person is leaving.

  • Proceed with caution. Informal chats with the prospective employers of staff members used to be commonplace. But the climate is now more litigious. Take advice from HR, and if you do say anything informally, keep a note of what you say, and transcribe it immediately. If it is agreed with both parties, tape the conversation.

  • Strike a compromise. If the employee is leaving after a dispute of some kind, liaise with HR about whether it is appropriate to negotiate a compromise deal in terms of the wording of the reference. Failing to honour such agreements could result in legal action.

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