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).