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How to Give a Reference

You may be asked to provide a reference at some point in your career. If you’re an employer, a manager, a supervisor or an instructor, you can expect to be asked by an employee or student. You could also be asked to provide a reference if you’re a co-worker, customer, client or even someone a job candidate supervises. Good references are vital to a job seeker’s success.

Use the questions and suggestions in this article to ensure that you provide an effective and appropriate reference.

What are you being asked for?

Most candidates are looking for either an employment reference or a character reference.

An employment or performance reference is usually asked for by a current or former employee or co-worker. It often includes the candidate’s job title and description, the time period of employment and details of skills, experience and accomplishments. It may also refer to the candidate’s character, especially in the area of work ethics and attitudes.

A character or personal reference is usually asked for by someone you know outside your workplace. You might be the person’s volunteer supervisor, teacher, neighbour, community or religious leader—or an elder. A character reference describes personal qualities and attitudes. It may also refer to tasks the candidate has performed in the community or at school.

Although most references are provided by phone, candidates may ask for a reference letter, also known as a letter of recommendation. You may want to provide a letter of reference if you’re about to retire, if you've relocated or if the candidate has relocated. Take a look at the examples that follow for help writing character and employment reference letters.

Should you say yes?

If you feel positive about the candidate’s capabilities and would recommend them for the job, you probably won’t hesitate to give a reference. But be aware of the possible legal implications before you agree to provide a reference. The following is intended as information only and does not take the place of legal advice.

Liability:  In Canada, employers who provide misleading references may be liable for damages to:

  • a fired employee, when a negative or a basic minimum reference makes it difficult for the employee to find another job
  • a potential employer who hires someone on the basis of a good reference, especially if the reference fails to mention any safety concerns raised by the employee’s conduct on the job.

Because of potential liability, many companies have guidelines for giving references. Some will only provide employment dates, position and salary information. Others will include information from a performance review that the employee has endorsed. If the reference you’ve been asked for raises concerns about liability, check with your human resources contact or consult a lawyer.

Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA): Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), which came into effect on January 1, 2004, describes how organizations should handle customers’ and employees’ personal information. Employment information for current or former employees gathered before or after January 1, 2004 can be shared without consent when it’s reasonable to do so—for example, during a recruitment process. The information must be about the work relationship.

When you’re asked to give a reference, the candidate expects you to share his or her employment information. However, a potential employer could contact you for a reference for a current or former employee who has not asked you to provide one. Under PIPA, you would be able to provide the reference, but you must inform a current employee of your intent to do so.

For more information, contact your organization’s human resources staff or visit PIPA.

If you agree to provide a reference, follow these suggestions:

  • Keep the information factual. Avoid personal opinions about issues such as personality conflicts. Your comments should relate to the job being applied for. The candidate should provide you with the job description so you can determine appropriate or relevant information.
  • Qualify what you say. For example, “It was our experience…” or “In this situation…”
  • Make your praise specific. For example, “When he did X organizational task, he was exceptional.”
  • Refer to specific tasks or projects. For example, “While she worked on project X…” or “As a member of the X team…”
  • Avoid examples that highlight a candidate’s weaknesses.

If you’re unsure if you want to provide a reference, you may be hesitating because the candidate’s performance was inconsistent or stronger in some areas than others. Discuss your concerns with the candidate. Perhaps he or she has made some positive changes since you last worked together. Talk to the candidate about what you feel comfortable discussing with potential employers and let the candidate decide whether to include you as a reference.

If you’re uncomfortable providing a reference, say so. In this case, it’s in the candidate’s best interest for you to turn down the request. A less-than-positive reference usually does more harm than good and potential employers will sense your hesitation.

How to prepare

If you’ve agreed to provide a reference, you need to gather some basic information so you can write a reference letter or answer questions by phone. Ask the candidate to provide you with:

  • an up-to-date resumé
  • a copy of the job posting or details about the position, such as required skills, experience, qualifications and expected tasks
  • details about projects he or she was involved with.

If you supervised the candidate, look over his or her most recent performance review.

You and the candidate should also talk about 2 other items:

  • If he or she was an employee or a co-worker, you’ll want to discuss the details of why and how the candidate left the job. His or her explanation should be the same as yours. The more positive it is, the more helpful it will be.
  • A potential employer may ask both you and the candidate about weaknesses. Talk about how you’ll answer this question. If you supervised the candidate, use the most recent performance review as a guide. Ask the candidate what steps he or she has taken to improve skills or attitudes.

What questions will you be asked?

Unless you specify that you want to be contacted by email or mail, the candidate’s potential employer will probably phone you. If it’s an employment reference, you’ll be asked to confirm information like dates of employment, position and so on. Here are some other questions you could be asked:

  • What was your relationship to the candidate?
  • Why did the candidate leave (or why is the candidate planning to leave) this job?
  • What were his or her responsibilities?
  • How would you describe (or rate on a scale of 1 to 10) the candidate’s dependability, flexibility, ability to work well with others, judgment, accuracy, initiative, responsibility and so on?
  • What would this candidate do if… (describes a possible situation)?
  • How would you rate or describe the candidate’s overall job performance?
  • What are his or her strengths?
  • In what areas could he or she improve?
  • Would you hire this person again?

If you feel a question is inappropriate, say “I’m not comfortable answering that.” In Alberta, the Human Rights Act identifies questions an employer cannot ask when making pre-employment inquiries. These limits apply to reference checks and include details about race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status and sexual orientation. For more information, see What Can Employers Ask You? or visit Alberta Human Rights.

The potential employer will try to make you feel at ease but a reference check is not a casual chat. If you maintain confidentiality and your own level of formality, you’ll avoid saying something you might regret later.

Show your support by providing an effective reference.

Being asked to give a reference is a routine part of working life, but it’s also an opportunity to show your support for a current or former employee, co-worker, student or neighbour. With the right information and an awareness of some legal concerns, you’ll be able to provide an effective reference—and feel good about doing it.

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