References and Referees

In the UK, a referee (the person who writes you a reference) should be someone best able to attest credibly to your talents in a professional/academic capacity. Always check with the referees beforehand to get their agreement.

Unless you are applying for an academic job or further study, you will typically need two referees. As a student, you should normally get a tutor and a past employer, if possible. They should not be relatives. It is important to contact potential referees ahead of applications to ask them if they are willing to write you a reference. This is also best practice if you need the reference returned by a given date and if you are making multiple applications.

For most non-academic positions, the offer is made and accepted before the references are called for. So typically it is only in academia that the reference needs to be impressive to influence the hiring decision. For most non-academic jobs the reference is a due diligence step.

The UK government website includes helpful information about what to do if you think you've been given an unfair or misleading reference.

We are often asked, for how long after moving on it is still valid to use a referee from your past. There is no general rule but you can help yourself by actively maintaining relationships. Some PhD supervisors and even some tutors become life-long friends with their former students, exchanging greetings cards and socialising periodically. In this case, there is no limit to how long you can call upon someone to be a referee. So always seek to form strong cordial relationships with all contacts in the University and in the workplace.

Julia Hilton, Careers Adviser, says:

In the UK you don't usually have to include referee details in your CV unless you are making an academic application. No matter who you choose as a referee, it's polite to ask them first! References could come from work experience (including micro-internships), extra-curricular activities, professional bodies, charities and voluntary experience, academia (including school) and even through strong LinkedIn connections. Your referee is someone who can champion your strengths and competencies for a given role so always seek to make warm connections in the workplace, even if it's short term experience.

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If referees are asked for explicitly, make sure you provide their names and contact details. By not doing so you may fail to comply with the minimum requirements that have been set by the employer as part of their recruitment process and, in any event, are likely to raise the employer’s suspicion in terms of your former studies or work history.

However, if they are not explicitly asked for, many people now do not add referees to the end of a CV (or sometimes state ‘References available on request’), trusting that references will then only be requested by an organisation that is seriously considering your application.

One advantage of leaving them off is that referees’ details can take up valuable space on a CV. They will normally be asked for at a later date – or on a separate application form – if the recruiter is interested in you.

However, if the names alone of your references convey the strength of your application, for example if you are applying for an academic position and your referee is well known for his or her research in the relevant subject, it might be wise to leave them on!

Does a previous employer have to provide a reference?

There is no legal obligation on an employer to provide a reference for an employee or an ex-employee unless there was a written agreement to do so or they are in a regulated industry, such as financial services. Employers are therefore entitled to refuse to provide a reference. However, an employer should have a consistent policy on providing references otherwise it could be at risk of an allegation of discrimination.

Can a referee provide a bad reference?

If you have any doubts about whether a referee will be able to highlight your strengths, discuss the matter with them in advance. Very few referees will ever give a ‘bad’ reference, if they’ve accepted the responsibility of giving a reference, but they might give a vague one if they haven’t known you well, or recall you only faintly!

Ultimately, there is a duty on those giving a reference to take reasonable care to ensure that the information it contains is true, accurate and fair. This therefore does not prevent the referee giving a bad reference, so long as it is accurate and a reasonable reflection on work related matters. Full details about your rights regarding references are available on the UK government website.

Can I check what a referee writes about me?

There is no obligation on your previous employer or education provider to give you a copy of the reference they have sent to your prospective employer. However, you can request a copy from the organisation that receives the reference, subject to their duties to any third parties.

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