1. Introduction

1.1. These guidelines apply to all references written in an official capacity regardless of the subject of that reference (e.g. a student, member of staff including honorary, casual, voluntary staff, etc).

1.2. The writing of references requires particular care as there are personal, professional and legal responsibilities that must be considered. There are two distinct aspects in the production of a reference. The first is the content of the reference itself. The second is the circumstances under which the subject of the reference may have a right of access to it.

2. Content

2.1 References given formally on behalf of the University (i.e. in a person's official capacity as an employee of the University) should be given on headed paper, provide the author's name and position, and be signed by the author. It should be made clear that the recipient relies on the reference at their own risk. (This does not provide any protection where a reference was negligently written).

2.2 Any reference written in an official capacity, regardless of the subject, should only contain information that is factual or is an honest opinion or judgement. Where opinions or judgements are offered they should be presented as such, and be capable of being demonstrated as reasonable from evidenced actions, events or circumstances. Opinions and judgements which can not be substantiated should not be offered.

2.3 An individual has the right to sue for damages if he or she suffers a loss or detriment as a consequence of information given in a reference if that information is given in error, negligently or with malicious intent.

2.4 Where a member of staff has failed to follow the guidance in this document they may be individually liable for any loss or detriment caused to the subject of their reference in these circumstances.

3. Access

3.1 Where the subject of a reference written by a member of University staff in an official capacity requests it from the University, the University is not obliged to release that information due to a specific exemption in the Data Protection Act 1998. This exemption does not apply to references received by the University, nor does it apply to references written by University staff and provided to another organisation, where the reference is requested from that organisation.

3.2 When a reference is requested from the University by its subject, regardless of whether it was written by a member of University staff or whether it was received by the University, the University's Data Protection Officer must be contacted to provide advice based on specific circumstances.

3.3 Where a reference is requested it may be anonymised prior to release, however even after the removal of names etc, it is generally still possible for the subject of a reference to work out who wrote the reference based on its content.

3.4 A reference should always be written in the knowledge that the receiver may disclose the content of any reference to its subject.

3.5 A personal reference, given in a personal capacity rather than as an officer of the University, must not in any way suggest its content is anything other than personal. References given in a personal capacity do not incur any liability for the University as an employer and should not form any part of an employment record or be maintained on any other University system.

4. General advice when writing references

4.1 References should always be constructed as carefully as possible to avoid any potential legal dispute. If you feel that you can not provide a positive or fair reference for any reason remember that you are not obliged to provide one.

4.2 Unless you know the subject well already, consider whether it is appropriate for you to be providing a reference, and what form that reference should take. It may be that the only reference you are able to provide is an entirely factual one. It is also advisable to check whether the person has already applied for the job, or whether they are requesting you to act as referee prior to an application.

4.3 Encourage staff and students to approach potential referees before they complete applications.

4.4 Any reference should:

  • Be based on facts.
  • Clearly illustrate where the author is offering an opinion.
  • Evidence any opinions.
  • Explicitly state the basis on which the reference is provided:
  • Relationship with the subject.
  • Length of that relationship.
  • Circumstances under which you are writing the reference.

4.5 The points in 4.4 above may help to establish that due care was taken in the production of the reference should the author be subject to any challenge.

4.6 It is acceptable to disclose a matter of fact such as the amount of sick leave taken by a person during a specified period. It is not acceptable to provide opinions regarding the state of a person's health or discuss any disability where doing so would contravene the Disability Discrimination Act or the Data Protection Act. Should these matters be pertinent to the reference you are writing please contact the University's Data Protection Officer or the Head of Disability Services for advice before proceeding.

4.7 To avoid any later complication or confusion you may wish to consider providing a copy of your reference to its subject at the point of production. This should be highlighted to the recipient of the reference by including the subject as a CC in the footer.

4.8 A reference should always be balanced, fair and defensible. You should never write anything that you would be not be prepared for the subject, or their solicitor, to read.

June 2005