How to respond to reference check requests

Proceed with caution
by Fred Heritage  


What do you say to a former colleague when they interview for a new role and ask you to provide a reference? How should you respond to a request from their new employer for a reference check?

Wanting to be kind and helpful, your instinct may be to immediately say yes. However, it’s important to first consider the details of the request, and whether you’re willing and able to provide what’s being asked. Do you really want to put your reputation, and possibly that of your company, on the line to help this person? And, if submitting a written letter of recommendation, what should and shouldn’t be included? Here are some tips for responding to requests for reference checks.

Decide if you want to help

The answer may be obvious “if the person was a star performer and dedicated colleague”, writes Rebecca Knight in a Harvard Business Review article, but if their track record was “spotty or worse, be careful”. Quoted in the same article, author and communications consultant Jodi Glickman warns that “you’re putting your reputation on the line” if the person you refer doesn’t perform.

According to Glickman, if you feel you really can’t serve as a reference for someone, be truthful and say so. “Say, ‘I am not going to be able to give you a strong enough recommendation. You need someone who can really sing your praises,’” she says.

Follow your company’s policy

Your employer may have a formal process in place for handling reference requests and this should be followed to avoid any potential issues. “Anything that is sent in a written format should come from Human Resources, or HR staff should review the response for consistency and protecting the best interests of the company,” writes Susan Heathfield in an article for The Balance Careers.

Employees should avoid verbal conversations with anyone requesting a reference check, writes Tiffany Provost in an article for How To Do Things. “This will cover you if there are any issues,” she writes. “All communication should be sent in written form. And this is usually done by your HR department. Don't get yourself into trouble by ignoring these policies. Your company's reputation is at stake should anything be misinterpreted about your reference check on your former employee.”

Be positive and use examples

In the Harvard Business Review article, Knight suggests that references given about former employees should always be as positive as possible, even when reference checkers ask about a candidate’s weaknesses. Knight quotes Priscilla Claman, president of consulting firm Career Strategies: “Never give a negative reference – it’s far too fraught. … Be careful about making a joke. Things can so easily get blown out of proportion. Stick to the facts.”

Glickman suggests that referees “talk about specific and special circumstances” to enable the hiring manager to make an assessment of competence. For example, the former employee may have achieved something when given a new responsibility, or led a successful project.

Know the official guidance

The rights of employees asking for reference checks (and employers giving them) will differ depending on the country or jurisdiction they’re in. In the UK, for example, official government guidance dictates: “An employer doesn’t usually have to give a work reference – but if they do, it must be fair and accurate. Workers may be able to challenge a reference they think is unfair or misleading.”

It outlines the circumstances in which UK employers must give a reference: either if “there was a written agreement to do so,” or “they’re in a regulated industry, like financial services”. Refences that UK employers do give “must be fair and accurate – and can include details about workers’ performance and if they were sacked,” and they “can be brief – such as job title, salary and when the worker was employed.”

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Published: 08 Jul 2022
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Soft Skills
  • references
  • career development

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