UCL Human Resources


Reference requests for current and ex-employees

Guidelines on providing references for current and ex-employees.

It is UCL's policy to provide references regarding the employment of current or past UCL employees, when requested by a UCL Recruiting Manager, another employer or potential lender. Managers providing references for present and past employees of UCL should read and comply with the following guidelines. Reference requests from Banks, Building Societies or other potential lenders should be directed to HR Services for response.

HR Services can also provide a standard response to employment reference requests on behalf of UCL e.g., confirm dates of employment. HR Services will not  provide detailed information or complete questionnaires.  


The legal position

1. 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 they have 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.

2. If any manager or Head of Department has a concern about writing a reference for an existing or past employee (s)they should contact their local HR team or HR Business Partner for advice.

3. 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.

4. 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 they are 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.

Aims of the reference

5. There are two principal reasons for a hiring manager or new employer requesting a reference on a prospective employee:

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

6. In responding to a reference request, the facts about an individual's employment history and any opinion of their 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 their view.

Providing a reference

7. In writing a reference the author should always indicate how long they have 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 they are unsure - if in doubt, leave it out.

8. 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."

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

10. References should be marked 'confidential' to the addressee.

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

Liability and disclaimers

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

13. "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."

14. 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 their 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, they should not be drawn into a discussion of the issue of liability, but should refer the matter immediately to their HR Business Partner. 

Confidentiality and disclosure of references

15. 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.

16. Under a specific exemption in the Data Protection Act 2018, a worker does not have the right to gain access to a confidential job reference from the organisation which has given it or the organisation to which it was sent.   However, these changes do not remove legal liability for misleading or negligent references and there are other circumstances when references may need to be disclosed (including the examples in the above paragraph) so care should be taken when providing a reference and the advice above should always be followed. 

Telephone or verbal references

17. 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 requestor. 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 they would not be willing to make in writing. 

Unsolicited references

18. It is generally not advisable 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. 

Criminal convictions and disciplinary sanctions

19. Spent criminal convictions must not be referred to in references and any queries should be referred to the HR Business Partner. 

Requesting references for prospective UCL employees

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

HR Employment Policy Team

October 2023