How to make reference requests for new staff and employees
Updated 28 August 2023
If you're regularly responsible for hiring new employees, you may want to ask their previous employers for a reference. It's important to ask for references when you're hiring someone new but it can be hard to know what information to provide or what kind of tone to use in these requests. Knowing how to write a request for a reference can guide you in asking for the right information from referees and ensure you comply with data protection laws and other guidelines. In this article, we explore what reference requests are and how to write a request for a reference.
What are reference requests?
Reference requests are formal requests to a former employer, supervisor or coworker asking them to provide information about a potential employee. Employers and hiring managers make requests for a reference when they're filling a new role, usually when they've chosen a candidate they want to hire. References are an important part of the hiring process because they allow employers to find out more about an employee, including how well they did in their previous role and whether they faced any particular challenges at work that they might struggle with again.
An employee reference usually comes from a colleague in the employee's current or previous job. Preferably, more senior members of staff or managers write employee references but in some cases, a reference from a team member may be acceptable. If the applicant has little formal work experience, they may use friends, teachers and university lecturers as referees instead. In these cases, a reference might tell you less about what a person is like within a professional capacity but it can still help you to understand their personal qualities, including strengths and weaknesses.
How to request a reference
If you're hiring a new employee, check their references. This is your opportunity to ask their previous employer what the employee is like to work with. It can help you to validate the achievements the potential employee has told you about and make sure they're a good fit for your organisation. Usually, employers ask for references at the stage when they've identified a suitable candidate and made a job offer dependent on references.
Follow the steps below to request references that include all the key details about the employee you're considering hiring:
1. Ask for written consent from the candidate
Before you contact references, gain formal, written consent from the candidate you're hiring to ensure they're happy for you to contact specific referees. You can ask for two or three contacts, making it clear that these references are a standard part of the hiring process. If you're asking for a reference for someone who's currently employed, they may not want you to contact their current employer. In this case, you can ask for a reference from a previous employer.
Make sure you get the employer's name, organisation and position so that you know who you're contacting and what details to ask of them. Before you contact each referee, you can also research their organisation to gain a better understanding of what they do and what the candidate's role entailed. This can help you to put an employee's achievements, challenges and strengths into context.
2. Use a standard reference request letter template
If you're unsure what to include in your letter, you can use a simple template to help you structure your email. These standard letter templates include all of the information necessary to make basic requests for references and you can edit them yourself if you want to ask for more specific information relating to an employee. Standard requests for a reference make requests faster to write and ensure your request is concise and clear, with a professional tone.
3. Request details about an employee
The primary purpose of a request for a reference is to gain information about a potential employee before you offer them a job. In your email or letter, ask for the information you want the referee to supply. This includes formal details about the applicant including their name, job title, dates of employment and some brief information about their work history and any relevant training courses they attended. You can also ask for general comments about the employee and their work performance.
4. Only request information relevant to the role
When drafting your request for a reference, only ask for information that's relevant to the role. This means asking for information about an employee's performance, skills and qualifications. If you ask questions about irrelevant or personal matters such as their health, hobbies, family and beliefs, this could lead to claims of discrimination or harassment against you or your organisation. When writing your request, consider carefully whether the information you're asking for is truly relevant to the role and, where necessary, explain briefly why such information is relevant.
5. Emphasise the importance of their reference
It's good practice to emphasise how important it is to provide accurate information so their references are useful when recruiting new staff members. Make it clear that the reference provided is a deciding factor in whether or not you hire the employee, and explain that a bad reference could have a significant impact on the employee's future. Remind them to ensure that their reference is accurate, positive and recent. This can increase your chances of receiving a useful and insightful reference about the employee.
6. Consider a poor reference carefully
If you receive a negative reference, give it careful consideration. Although a negative reference could indicate that an employee is unprofessional or unmotivated, it can also be the result of poor management or office culture in a previous role. Request references from more than one employer because this can help you to determine whether there's a consistent problem or whether an employee simply didn't fit in one organisation. If you're concerned, discuss the reference with the employee and offer them an opportunity to explain any negative feedback to you.
7. Follow data protection laws
Consider data protection when you're writing requests for a reference. This means complying with current GDPR and data protection laws. Data protection laws require that you receive proper consent before you approach a referee and comply with your organisation's data protection policy concerning references. This might mean making correspondence private or ensuring that it isn't easily accessible or on a shared staff network.
Request for a reference template
If you're writing a request for a reference for the first time, following a template can help you to format your request in a formal and logical structure. You can follow the template below to structure your request:
My name is [your name] and I work for [organisation name]. We are currently hiring for a [position title] and one of your former colleagues, [employee name], is under consideration for this role.
Before we make a formal offer, I am reaching out to you to request supporting information about [employee name]. It would be useful to me if you can confirm the position he/she held within your company, the dates he/she worked there and what responsibilities this role involved.
I would also be keen to hear more about [employee name]'s performance in this role, including his/her strengths and weaknesses and whether you would recommend him/her as an employee.
I am happy to receive a reference in writing at [insert email address] or, if you prefer, you can call me on [insert phone number]. Any communication you provide will be treated in confidence.
Thank you in advance,
[Your job title]
Request for a reference example
The following email example uses the template above to ask for a basic reference:
Dear Mr Matterhorn,
My name is Michelle Simmons and I work for Brookings Solicitors. We are currently hiring for a paralegal and one of your former colleagues, David Travers, is being considered for this role.
Before we make a formal offer, I am reaching out to you to request supporting information about David. It would be useful if you can confirm the position he held within your company, the dates he worked there and the responsibilities his role involved.
I would also be keen to hear more about David's performance in this role, including his strengths and weaknesses and whether you would recommend him as an employee.
I am happy to receive a reference in writing at MSimmons@brookings.com or, if you prefer, you can call me at 555-2699-351. All of our communication is confidential.
Thank you in advance,
HR Coordinator, Brookings Solicitors
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