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References for staff - Guidelines on Writing

It is University College London (UCL) policy to provide references regarding the employment of current or past UCL employees, when requested by another employer or potential lender. Managers providing references for present and past employees of University College London (UCL) should read and comply with the following guidelines. Reference requests from Banks, Building Societies or other potential lenders should be directed to the Human Resources (HR) Division for response.

Guidelines on providing references for staff are contained within Appendix C of the Recruitment and Selection Guidelines.


1 THE LEGAL POSITION

An inaccurate or defamatory employment reference can be the subject of an action for negligence or defamation against UCL and/or the individual author and therefore the author of a reference owes a 'duty of care' to the person about whom it is written. Where the author of a reference is proven to have acted negligently, the subject of the reference does not have to prove 'actual loss' of employment, but only that (s)he has lost a 'reasonable chance' of employment and thereby sustained loss. A duty of care is also owed to the recipient of the reference, who may be able to sue the individual referee and/or UCL for damages if the information contained in the reference is inaccurate or misleading.

Recent case law also indicates that there can be a legal obligation on a current or recent employer to provide a reference, as refusal to do so may damage the individual's opportunity of gaining employment. If any manager or Head of Department has a concern about writing a reference for an existing or past employee (s)he should contact his/her HR team for advice.

It is the responsibility of Heads of Department to identify those staff in their department who are authorised to respond to reference requests relating to current and former members of staff and to ensure that they are aware of these guidelines.

Managers or Heads of department approached for a reference for a member of staff reporting to them or within their department are effectively providing a reference on behalf of UCL and the reference should be provided on UCL headed paper. Anyone approached for a reference for a peer or colleague for whom they do not have management responsibility should make clear that (s)he is providing the reference in a personal capacity. Such a reference should not normally be on UCL headed paper and the relationship of the referee with the individual concerned should be made clear.

2 AIMS OF THE REFERENCE

There are two principal reasons for an employer requesting a reference on a prospective employee:

a To confirm the accuracy of statements made in his/her application;
b To provide opinions as to the candidate's suitability for the post in question and his/her potential for the future.

In responding to a reference request, the facts about an individual's employment history and any opinion of his/her ability to undertake a new role should not be confused. If an opinion is offered regarding an individual's abilities, the reasoning for such a view should be made clear. If challenged, the author would need to provide evidence to support his/her view.


3 PROVIDING A REFERENCE

In writing a reference the author should always indicate how long (s)he has known the individual and in what capacity and ensure that the facts stated about an individual are correct. The author should not include any facts of which (s)he is unsure - if in doubt, leave it out.

If asked to express an opinion on an issue about which the author cannot make an unequivocal statement, for example, regarding an individual's honesty and integrity, it is appropriate to use a phrase such as "I know of nothing that would lead me to question X's honesty."

As a general rule only comments on an individual's performance or ability that have already been the subject of discussion with him/her should be included.

References should be marked 'confidential' to the addressee.

A copy of any reference provided on behalf of UCL should be forwarded to the HR Division for inclusion on the individual's HR file.


4 LIABILITY AND DISCLAIMERS

A reference should contain the following disclaimer in its final paragraph:

"In accordance with UCL's normal practice this reference is given in good faith and in confidence, without legal liability on behalf of the author or UCL."

As there is no guarantee that a disclaimer will not be successfully challenged in court due care must be exercised when preparing a reference. UCL has insurance that covers members of staff (and ex members of staff) who have written references regarding colleagues in the course of their employment, if these guidelines have been followed. UCL insurance does not cover references written by a member of staff in his/her private capacity (e.g. a character reference for a colleague, friend or neighbour). In the event that a member of staff is challenged over the content of a reference, (s)he should not be drawn into a discussion of the issue of liability, but should refer the matter immediately to the HR Division.


5 CONFIDENTIALITY AND DISCLOSURE OF REFERENCES

All references are given in confidence but UCL or the recipient, may be required to disclose a reference under certain circumstances, such as a request for disclosure by an Employment Tribunal or a Court dealing with a negligence or defamation case.

Under the Data Protection Act 1998, with effect from 24 October 2001, individuals will have a right to request sight of references written about them by their current or past employer and those writing references should take this into account.

It is current practice that where an individual member of staff gives notice to the HR Division that (s)he wishes to see the contents of his/her HR file, his/her request is accommodated.


6 TELEPHONE OR VERBAL REFERENCES

Although requests for telephone or verbal references are frequently received, such requests should be declined other than in exceptional circumstances, since information given in this way may be misinterpreted in its transmission to the interview panel. If, exceptionally, a verbal reference is given, steps should be taken to verify the identity of the enquirer and notes should be kept of the conversation. Where a verbal reference is given on behalf of UCL the person giving the reference should not make any statements that (s)he would not be willing to make in writing.


7 UNSOLICITED REFERENCES

It is generally inadvisable to provide unsolicited references addressed 'to whom it may concern'. If exceptionally, such references are provided they should be limited to factual statements such as dates of employment, sickness record, capacity in which employed and reason for leaving, if known.


8 CRIMINAL CONVICTIONS AND DISCIPLINARY SANCTIONS

Care should be taken not to refer to spent criminal convictions in references and any queries should be referred to the HR Division. If UCL has taken disciplinary sanctions against the subject of the reference, or if his/her performance is under formal review, advice should always be sought from the HR Division as to how this should be mentioned in a reference letter.


9 REQUESTING REFERENCES FOR PROSPECTIVE UCL EMPLOYEES

UCL policy regarding the taking up of references on prospective employees is contained within the UCL Recruitment and Selection Guidelines.