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Obtaining and providing references for existing or former staff and students

Understand the risks to avoid and process to follow for obtaining and/or providing employment references including for existing or former staff and students.


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Approval date
14 Mar 2024
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References are intended to provide factual information and an objective assessment of the performance and abilities of an individual. The aim of this document is to provide guidance to members of staff who may be asked to provide references for, or obtain references from, a third party.

The University will normally be liable for any consequences of references given by members of staff, other than references given in a personal capacity. Consequently, anyone providing references should ensure that they are familiar with and comply with this guidance and any other rules or guidelines which may be issued from time to time.

Heads of Department should ensure that any member of their department who responds to a reference request is aware of this guidance.

If you are a manager and have any doubt or concerns about the application of this guidance, please seek advice from your Human Resource Business Partner or Advisor before taking any action.

If you are a personal tutor or doctoral supervisor and have any concerns about what to include in a reference for a student, please consult with your Director of Studies or Head of Department. If you need further advice, you can contact Student Support via the Student Advice Line at 01225 38 4321.


This guidance applies to references which the University receives and which the University provides in respect of former, existing and prospective employees and students.

Whilst generally there is no legal obligation on the University to provide any kind of reference, it recognises that it does have a responsibility to treat employees and students fairly and there may be legal consequences of refusing to provide a reference in particular cases. The University shall normally provide references for existing or former employees and students (on request and where records exist).

References are normally provided for employment purposes. However, references may also be provided for purposes other than employment, such as in support of further study and academic promotion, to support the award of prizes and grants, financial information for mortgage purposes or when renting accommodation.

The principles outlined in this guidance shall apply to all references.

Legal obligations

Referees owe a duty of care in respect of the content of the reference, both to the recipient of the reference and to the person about whom the reference is written. This duty involves providing a fair and accurate reference in respect of the individual and a full and frank response to the recipient.

Both the University and the individual author of a reference may be liable in damages, if it is deemed that they have been negligent in writing the reference and either the recipient or the subject of the reference suffers loss as a result. Referees therefore have a responsibility to take care about what they say in references to ensure that they are factually accurate, fair and reasonable, and that they do not give a misleading impression overall.

Obtaining references for candidates

This procedure relates to obtaining references about candidates applying for jobs within the University.

Separate advice is available for seeking references for undergraduate students

4.1 When to take up references

References in respect of candidates for job vacancies with the University are generally requested by Human Resources.

References will normally be sought for shortlisted candidates prior to the selection process taking place unless the candidate has indicated otherwise.

4.2 Who should act as referee

  • External candidates: one reference required from the current line manager (if currently employed) or most recent line manager (if currently unemployed). A second reference required from the next most recent employer.

  • Internal and directly appointed candidates: one reference required from the current line manager. If obtaining a reference is not possible for internal candidates, confirmation will be sought from the HR Advisor that there are no ongoing performance issues for the individual or disciplinaries in progress.

  • Internal candidates remaining within the same team or where the current line manager is the hiring manager: no reference required.

If a member of the recruitment panel is also a referee for a candidate, they should normally provide the reference in advance of the selection process taking place (as long as consent is provided).

Candidates who are school leavers or graduates may nominate head teachers, lecturers or tutors and any temporary or work experience employer as appropriate. It may be appropriate for candidates who have not been in paid employment to nominate referees from relevant unpaid employment such as voluntary or community work.

Character references from friends and relatives are not acceptable.

Open references or testimonials are usually not acceptable. They should be used warily as they can be subjective, inaccurate and unrelated to the specific job description and person specification. Wherever possible, named references should be taken up.

Please contact the Talent Acquisition Manager or Advisory Team for further advice.

4.3 Taking up a reference

In all circumstances, permission must be sought from the candidate before contacting a referee.

A copy of the job description and person specification for the post will be sent by Human Resource’s Recruitment Team to the candidate’s referees. They will be asked to provide information on the candidate related to the job description and person specification including the nature of the work undertaken and quality of their work, as well as dates of employment and employment history.

Questions that relate to sickness absence will be addressed as part of the health assessment process and only in relation to the successful candidate once the job offer has been made.

References must normally be provided in writing.

4.4 Telephone or oral references

In limited circumstances, references may be obtained by telephone, subject to the referee being asked for confirmation in writing. The identity of the person providing the reference will need to be verified, and a file note made, signed and dated which summarises the nature and content of an oral reference.

4.5 Confidentiality

In most cases a data subject will have the right to see the contents of a reference by submitting a data subject access request.

4.6 Offers of appointment

Job offers will be made subject to receiving references that are satisfactory to the recruiting manager.

Successful candidates should not be allowed to take up post without any references. If, in the exceptional circumstance, the individual does take up post without all the references being received, every effort should be made to obtain the remaining references with the minimum of delay.

4.7 Unsatisfactory references

If references are received which are unsatisfactory in some way after a provisional offer of employment has been made, the recruiting manager will need to consider the most appropriate course of action in consultation with Human Resources.

As long as the post has been offered subject to the receipt of satisfactory references, a decision to withdraw the offer or terminate the contract with due notice (or payment in lieu of notice), in circumstances where the references received reveal information which justifies this course of action, is unlikely to be successfully challenged.

If there is a discrepancy between the information provided by the candidate and that provided by the referee, the manager should give the candidate the opportunity to provide an explanation before a decision is made.

Providing references for existing or former employees and students

This section outlines generic advice about providing references for employees and students.

5.1 Who can provide a reference

The line manager of the individual who is the subject of the reference should respond to a reference request in respect of current and former members of staff as they have direct experience of the individual’s work. The line manager may authorise other staff within the Department who have direct experience of the individual’s work to respond to particular references.

The Director of Studies, a personal tutor or another appropriate member of academic staff (such as project supervisors) should provide references for students of the University.

All those providing references for individuals in the context of their employment or study should be aware they are providing a reference on behalf of the University. The reference should be written on University of Bath headed paper or, if provided by email, authenticated by use of an official University email signature.

Any decision not to provide a reference for a member of staff should be discussed first with a Human Resources Business Partner or Advisor to ensure no special considerations apply to the particular case. Particular care is required when writing or refusing to provide a reference for an individual who has previously made an allegation of unlawful discrimination against the University or any member of staff. This is to ensure there can be no claim of victimisation.

5.2 Providing the information requested

The referee needs to ensure where possible, that the individual to whom the request for the reference relates has given his or her consent to the reference being provided. This can be done orally, although a note should be kept of what is said.

The referee should only disclose information which is relevant to the post for which the existing or former employee or student has applied. It is essential that the prospective employer or academic institution provides any relevant information, for example the job description, person specification or details of the course programme.

The two principle aims of a reference are:

  • to confirm facts (for example, to confirm the accuracy of statements made in an application)

  • to provide an opinion as to the suitability based on an assessment of performance in post or as a student

When giving references, the referee should only include information that is known to them or which they have verified. All factual information should be able to be substantiated if queried.

Where employment records are not available for staff previously employed by the University, the start and end dates of employment should be provided.

Further guidance on the content of an employment reference is available.

5.3 Telephone or oral references

If possible, telephone or oral references should be avoided as the information provided may be amended or distorted according to what the requester of the reference understood is said or implied.

Instead of giving such references, the requester of the reference should be asked to put their request in writing. However if a reference is given over the phone, the referee should verify the authenticity of the request by telephoning the third party. They should also ensure that they never say anything that they would not be prepared to state in writing and that a note is made of the conversation.

5.4 Confidentiality

References can be marked ‘private and confidential’ and ‘for the attention of the addressee and relevant interviewing panel only’.

However the author of the reference should be aware that the subject of the reference may submit a request to see the reference under the Data Protection Act 1998 and confidentiality can never be guaranteed. Therefore whenever a reference is written it should be assumed that it will be disclosed to the data subject upon request.

5.5 Disclaimer

It is the University’s practice to include a disclaimer in all references to protect both the University and the author from potential liability. The following wording is recommended:

“Whilst this reference is given in good faith and all reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the truth and accuracy of its contents, in accordance with the University of Bath’s normal practice, neither the person giving this reference nor the University of Bath will be held responsible in any way for any errors, omissions or misstatements which it may contain.”

There is no guarantee that this or any other disclaimer will not be challenged. While it is prudent to include it, it cannot be relied upon and therefore the other guidelines contained within this document should be complied with.

Disclosure of references

References which have been provided by the University or received by the University may have to be disclosed under certain circumstances, such as a request for disclosure by an Employment Tribunal or a Court dealing with a claim of negligence or discrimination.

Under the Data Protection Act 1998, individuals also have a right to request sight of references which the University has provided or written about them. Any requests by an individual to access a reference must be made through the University’s Data Protection Subject Access request procedure.

Requests from individuals to access references written about them will normally be accommodated.

Record keeping

All documents relating to references will normally comprise personal data and must be kept securely.

References which have been provided by another third party during the recruitment process should not be kept any longer than necessary and should be securely destroyed once they are no longer needed. References for the successful candidate will be stored by the Department of Human Resources in the individual’s personal file.

References provided or received in relation to students must be retained in departmental student files and subject to the retention policy for student data. This requires all departmental files to be thoroughly and systematically weeded during the three year period from when a student graduates or leaves the University.

Read the guidance on writing an employment reference

How to write an employment reference

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