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Good Practice Guidelines in Writing References
Guidance Notes for Academic Staff – Writing References for Students
Introduction
Many academic staff will be asked to act as referees to both past and present
students. These notes are intended to act as a guidance in the preparation of
references by academic staff in their capacity as Northumbria University employees
and in the light of the duty of care owed by the referee to both the subject of the
reference and the receiver.
Care must be taken in the preparation of references, particularly in view of recent
litigation against the writer of the reference where the subject has sued for loss of
earnings when the content of the reference led to the removal of a job offer.
There are therefore a number of important areas that must be considered when
preparing the reference and these are considered below.
The Reference
1. It should be made clear to students, both past and present, that permission
should be sought from the referee before any reference can be provided.
You may not feel in a position to comment on the student's performance if you
have had little or no contact with the student in question. If a student does ask
you to act as a referee you are perfectly free to decline due to insufficient
knowledge about the student. If you find you are asked for a reference from a
potential employer, without your knowledge, you are entitled to decline the
request as long as you make it clear that you are unable to do so because you
have little or no knowledge of the student.
2. Prepare the reference thoroughly. It is advisable that records held on the
student are reviewed before writing a reference. It is important that the reference
is based on factual information. If the student is facing disciplinary proceedings,
or any investigations it is important that you know about it before completing and
returning the reference.
3. Only answer information requested by the potential employer. It is not
necessary to provide information outside the remit of your knowledge or
relationship with the student nor is it necessary to go further than requested.
4. Do not answer questions that you do not feel qualified to answer. It may be
that you are not in a position to answer a question on the student because you
did not have experience of them in such a situation. This may be of particular
relevance to questions of character, integrity or trustworthiness. Make it clear if
you are not able to provide answers where they extend beyond your relationship
with the student. If you can only provide a limited response again make sure you
clarify why this is so in order that you do not inadvertently imply a negative
reference.
5. In the case of a student with a health problem or disability, take care to avoid
giving any comment or opinion about the nature or effects of the health
problem/disability, which falls outside your professional competence (e.g. medical
opinions).
6. Stick to the facts and if giving opinions make sure you are qualified to
answer them. If the potential employer asks how you believe the student would
perform in the role they offer you are only able to respond with your knowledge of
the student in an academic environment. If the employer asks what degree result
the student will receive you should base your response on factual knowledge e.g.
previous results, and not mislead the employer that the future result is
guaranteed. If you do not have a response to the request explain why.
7. It is important that whilst the facts you are providing are correct you do not
give an overall misleading impression. Do not feel that you cannot give your
opinion on a student where it is within your professional capacity to do so.
8. It is your responsibility to provide a true, fair and accurate reference.
However it is advisable that a disclaimer would be included at the beginning of
the reference that explains that you have attempted to provide accurate
information but should not be held legally responsible for any errors. This
disclaimer could be worded as follows – 'This reference is provided exclusive of
legal responsibility and subject to condition that whilst all attempts have been
made to provide accurate information the referee and the University cannot be
held responsible for any errors'. It is not advisable to provide an oral reference
but if you do so make an accurate note. Providing oral references may leave
phrases open to interpretation, the receiver may have misheard; you may be
forced to respond to questions you should otherwise refrain from answering. Oral
references should be avoided.
9. Make sure when returning the reference to the receiver it is clearly marked
'Private and Confidential' and for their attention only. However, the referee
should be aware that the subject of the reference has a right under the Data
Protection Act 1998 to request a copy of the reference from the recipient of the
reference.
10. Keep a copy of the reference for your and the University's records. If a case
were to arise where the contents of the reference is challenged it is important that
a copy of the reference is available.
11. If in any doubt about providing a reference or dealing with a particular
request please contact Phil Booth (Acting University Secretary – Ext. 4573)
or Jay Wood (Legal and Compliance Officer – Ext. 3482).
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