What are references and how should I choose a referee?

In the UK a reference can vary both on the policy of the organisation giving the reference and what the organisation asking for the reference is asking for.

References for jobs may be:

  • A simple acknowledgment of facts. Employee X worked at XXXX from Date – Date.
  • Some basic facts about your job role and competencies.
  • An employment referee may be asked to assess you against certain criteria, punctuality, communication skills, attendance etc.
  • Or it can be more of a testimonial – recommending you to a future employer or University.

References for postgraduate study can be:

  • Facts: Student x studied at XXX University and obtained X grade
  • An academic referee may be asked what competencies skills or knowledge you should have gained from the course and you performance.
  • Additionally they may request transcripts.

When to provide the reference - on an application or later?

Most application forms will ask for referee contact details: An employer may choose to contact referees at any stage in the process although it is more likely to be in the final stages due to the time this takes. If you are currently in employment you may ask for your current employer not to be contacted until you have been made an offer.

On a CV it is not a requirement to add your referees details, you do not have to write available on request either.

  • The space is often better used to give more details about your skills and employment.
  • Recruiters will ask for them when needed.
  • Exceptions are where full reference details are rrequested in the application information or if it would be advantageous to add them.

Choosing a referee

Typically you will be asked to provide the names, job titles and contact details of two (or more) referees.

Employers may be very specific on the application about who they want and this may not fit with your personal circumstances. If in doubt contact the employer and ask if a different referee would be possible in your situation.

  • If you are currently studying then your personal tutor may be a good choice. Choosing another academic, say a project tutor may be equally appropriate as they can talk about your work-related skills. If you are unsure who to approach ask your academic schools' administration office.
  • Your second referee could be a second academic although a current employer would provide the added selling point of how you perform in the workplace.
  • If you need a third referee or you have no employer references you could choose someone from wider life experience. Volunteering supervisor, sports coach or head of a society of which you are a member.
  • If you are working or your work experience is relevant then you would probabaly want a recent or relevant employer to be one of your references.
  • Using a family member may or may not be acceptable in certain circumstances; you will need to explain the context to your future employer, they will decide if it is acceptable or not. Occasionally you may be asked for a personal reference, this will normally be someone who is in a position of professional responsibility and has known you for more than five years.

Ask permission

Always ask permission before you put anyone forward as your referee. You may have had an informal general offer from an academic or previous employer of providing you with a reference. Don’t assume it is still an open invitation. Always ask and receive a positive reply before you include them.

Contacting and briefing your referee

You must contact referrees before you use their details on an application.

  • They may no longer work at the organisation or be away on extended leave.
  • You need to be sure what the procedure is and which contact information to use. Some companies will only provide an HR reference which is a very basic confirmation of facts.
  • Confirm that your referree is happy to discuss your performance.

Contacting your referee to ask if they wouldn’t mind writing you a reference will no doubt be followed by what are you applying for? Who with? Why did you choose that? Have all this information ready for them. This could simply be a copy of your application or CV and covering letter. You could (literally) highlight the key words, skills, experiences and personality traits you believe make you a strong candidate. Ask them to emphasise these on their written reference. Going through these steps will hopefully ensure your reference arrives at the HR department of your employer suitably tailored to the requirements for the job.

Can my employer write a bad reference?

If you have had a negative experience with an employer and feel they would give you a bad reference then it may be best to pick someone else. If this is your only employer then check with them if they are happy to give you a reference. The reference must be accurate and not contain misleading information, but they do not have to provide a reference unless it states in your contract that they do.


  • Acceptable: Jim was rated 2 on a scale of 1-5 (where 1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest) in his most recent (state year) performance appraisal
  • Not acceptable: Jim's work was considered unsatisfactory
  • Acceptable: Hannah was given a first written warning regarding timekeeping in (state date)
  • Not acceptable: Hannah frequently turned up to work late in the mornings
  • Acceptable: Jack was summarily dismissed from the company for fighting with a colleague
  • Not acceptable: Jack's conduct at work left a lot to be desired

You can make a request to see your reference under data protection law.