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How to Give a Reference

You may be asked to provide a reference at some point in your career. Good references are vital to a job seeker’s success.

If you’re an employer, supervisor, or instructor, you can expect students or employees to request one from you. A co-worker, customer, client, or even your supervisor could ask you for a reference.

Use these questions and ideas to help you provide an effective and appropriate reference.

What kind of reference can you give?

Most job seekers will ask for one of two types of references.

Current or former employees or co-workers will usually ask for an employment or performance reference. It often includes their job title and description, their employment period and details of skills, experience and achievements. It may also refer to the candidate’s character, especially in the area of work ethics and attitudes.

Someone you know outside your workplace might ask for a character or personal reference. You might be an elder, teacher, neighbour or the person’s volunteer, community or religious leader. A character reference describes personal traits and attitudes. It may also refer to tasks the job seeker has performed in the community or at school.

Most employers ask for references by phone. But some candidates may request a letter of reference or recommendation. You may want to provide a reference letter if you’re retiring or if you or the job seeker have moved. These samples may help you write your reference letters:

Should you say yes?

If you respect the candidate’s abilities and would recommend them for the job, you may not hesitate to give a reference. But be aware of the possible legal implications before you agree. The following information 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
  • An employer who hires someone because of your good reference, especially if your reference fails to mention any safety concerns raised by the employee’s conduct on the job

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

Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA): Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) came into effect on January 1, 2004. It describes how workplaces should handle customer and employee personal information. You can share employment information for current or former employees 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 for a reference, the candidate expects you to share his or her employment information. However, an employer could contact you about a current or former employee who hasn’t asked you for a reference. Under PIPA, you can provide the reference, but you must inform a current employee of your intent to do so.

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

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

  • Keep the information factual. Avoid opinions about issues such as personal conflicts. Your comments should relate to the job the candidate is applying for. Make sure the candidate gives you a job description. This way you can decide what details are relevant.
  • Qualify what you say. For example, “It was our experience…” or “In this situation…”
  • Make your praise specific. For example, “When X managed this task, her work was outstanding.”
  • Refer to specific tasks or projects. For example, “While he worked on project X…” or “As a member of the X team…”
  • Avoid examples that highlight a candidate’s weaknesses

If you’re unsure about giving a reference, discuss your concerns with the candidate. You may hesitate because the candidate’s performance was uneven in some areas. But he or she may have made some positive changes since you last worked together. Talk to the candidate about what you feel comfortable discussing with potential employers. Then let the candidate decide whether to include you as a reference.

If you feel uneasy giving a reference, say so. In this case, it’s in the candidate’s best interest for you to turn down the request. A lukewarm reference will do more harm than good and employers will sense your hesitation.

How should you prepare?

If you’ve agreed to provide a reference, you’ll need to gather some basic information. Ask the candidate to give you:

  • An up-to-date resumé
  • A copy of the job posting or the position’s details, such as required skills, experience, qualifications and expected tasks
  • Details about projects he or she took part in.

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, discuss why and how the candidate left the job. You should both have the same explanation. The more positive it is, the more helpful it will be.
  • A potential employer may ask you both about the candidate’s weaknesses. Talk about how you’ll answer this question. Did you supervise the candidate? Use the most recent performance review as a guide. Ask the candidate about steps taken to improve skills or attitudes.

What questions will you be asked?

Unless you ask to be contacted by email or mail, the potential employer will probably phone you. If it’s an employment reference, you’ll 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 duties?
  • How would you describe (or rate on a scale of 1 to 10) the candidate’s dependability, flexibility, ability to work with others, judgment, accuracy, initiative 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 not appropriate, say “I’m not comfortable answering that.” In Alberta, the Human Rights Act limits questions that apply to reference checks. You cannot ask 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 won’t say something you might regret later.

Show your support with an effective reference

References are a routine part of working life. They can also allow you 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 can provide an effective reference. And you’ll feel good about doing it.

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