A letter of recommendation or recommendation letter, also known as a letter of reference, reference letter, or simply reference, is a document in which the writer assesses the qualities, characteristics, and capabilities of the person being recommended in terms of that individual's ability to perform a particular task or function. Letters of recommendation are typically related to employment (such a letter may also be called an employment reference or job reference), admission to institutions of higher education, or scholarship eligibility. They are usually written by someone who worked with or taught the person, such as a supervisor, colleague, or teacher.

References may also be required of companies seeking to win contracts, particularly in the fields of engineering, consultancy, manufacturing, and construction, and with regard to public procurement and tenders. Reference letters for organizations are used to assess its ability to deliver the required level of service.


The person providing a reference is called a referee. An employment reference letter is usually written by a former employer or manager, but references can also be requested from co-workers, customers, and vendors.[1] Teachers and professors often supply references for former students.[2] Reference letters for organizations are usually supplied by parties to which the company has provided similar services in the past.

Reference letters for students are usually written by a former teacher or professor.


The employment reference letter can cover topics such as:[3]


In some countries, elements of performance are evaluated using established forms of expression, sometimes euphemistic. For example, in the German-language Arbeitszeugnis, the following terms are frequently used:[4]

This language established itself as an unwritten code in the employment world. Its purpose was to give even weakly performing employees a letter of recommendation that does not sound negative. However, the euphemistically glazed-over descriptions are now codified and generally known, so that the original cryptic intent is no longer served.[5] Nonetheless, it is still standard to use this codified language.

Recipient of the letter

Depending on context and issuer, letters can be either:

For example, a German Arbeitszeugnis is usually issued automatically to a leaving employee, and is therefore not addressed to a particular requester. A letter of recommendation for a university of college in the US is usually written for and addressed to a specific institution the student wants to apply to.

If the letter is addressed to a particular requester, the letter will often be sent directly to that requester, and not to the applicant. In that case, applicants usually have the right to view a copy of the letter. Some applications, such as professional schools, give applicants the choice to waive their right to view their letters. Usually, applicants are encouraged to waive their rights because if they do not, it is a sign they are not confident in their recommenders.

Checking of references

Most potential employers will contact referees to obtain references before offering a job to a new employee. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that eight out of ten resource professionals said they regularly conduct reference checks for professional (89%), executive (85%), administrative (84%) and technical (81%) positions.[6] Candidates are advised to ensure that they provide a suitable list of referees to their new prospective employer or institution, and to contact those referees to ensure that they are able and willing to provide a suitable reference. In some cases, employers will contact a candidate's former company for a reference even if no contact is supplied by the candidate.

Duty to provide a reference

Some employers may not be willing to provide reference letters because they may be concerned about potential lawsuits. In this case, the employer may only provide the job title, dates of employment, and salary history.[1] Finland,[7] Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary[8] and Bulgaria are the only countries in Europe where employees can legally claim an employment reference, including the right to a correct, unambiguous, and benevolent appraisal.[9]

While there is no common law duty to provide a reference,[10] the Supreme Court of Canada has held that a refusal to do so may constitute "conduct that is unfair or is in bad faith" with respect to a wrongful dismissal, and thus "indicative of the type of conduct that ought to merit compensation by way of an addition to the notice period."[11] There is a duty of care to ensure that, where one is provided, it is accurate and fair and not give a misleading impression,[12] as held by the House of Lords in Spring v Guardian Assurance plc.[13] If an employer goes beyond what a reference should contain, or if it gives inaccurate or misleading information, liability may arise in the areas of breach of statutory duty, negligent misstatement, deceit, defamation or malicious falsehood.[12] It does not matter what form the reference might take.[14]

In the United Kingdom, references received by an employer from another person or organization can be disclosed to the person about whom they are written under the subject access provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998, but certain confidentiality considerations apply as to the identity of the person giving the reference.[15] As a result, together with the duty of care under Spring, many organizations have issued guidance as to best practice to be undertaken by reference providers.[16][17]

The duty of care has also been held to apply in non-reference situations, as noted in 2011 in McKie v Swindon College.[18] In another case, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales has held that "a reference must not give an unfair or misleading impression overall, even if its discrete components are factually correct."[19] However, while a reference must be accurate and fair, it is not necessary to report all material facts concerning an individual,[20] but it can be argued that, if an agreed reference arising from a settlement agreement is misleadingly incomplete, the employer can be sued by a subsequent employer for breaching its duty of care.[21] The Employment Appeal Tribunal, in an unfair dismissal case, ruled that, in preparing a reference, it was not reasonable to provide details of complaints against an employee of which the employee was not aware.[22]

The Court of Appeal has further held that, if an employee leaves when an investigation is ongoing but has not been concluded, or where issues arise after an employee leaves that have not been investigated, employers can disclose this information but should do so in a measured and fair way, which will be particularly important if to omit this information would mean providing a misleading reference.[23]

In 2014, the UK government's Crown Commercial Service issued an information note clarifying that government departments are permitted to issue references relating to suppliers, and that failure to do so, reflecting a belief that policy matters prevented references from being issued, could have a detrimental effect on companies' development, especially small and medium sized enterprises.[24] The information note emphasized the importance of references being based on evidence and contemporaneous records, related to a specific proposed contract for which a reference has been requested, and issued by a member of staff formally authorized to speak for the organization providing the reference.[25]

In 2016, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority are issuing rules that will require the furnishing of references, before any approval or certification may be given by them, as well as specifying the information that they must contain.[12][26][27]

Relieving letters in India

In India, employees typically receive a relieving letter (also called an experience certificate or service certificate) from their employer when leaving a job.[28] While the relieving letter may also serve as a letter of recommendation, the specific purpose of the relieving letter is to prove to any new employer that the applicant properly resigned from their old job and fulfilled all obligations to the former employer, such as working the notice period.[29]

Generally, employers are legally required to provide a relieving letter to leaving employees.[30] In Kerala, for example, this is regulated in the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Bill[31] Despite this, employers will sometimes deny or delay providing a relieving letter, which makes it difficult for a leaving employee to start a new job.

See also


  1. ^ a b Doyle, Alison. "References for employment". Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  2. ^ "Requesting Letters of Recommendation". PSY 301. California State University Long Beach. Retrieved 5 April 2017.
  3. ^ Peter Häusermann: Arbeitszeugnisse – wahr, klar und fair. Tipps und Anregungen für verantwortungsbewusste Arbeitgeber. 6. Auflage. Spektramedia, Zürich 2008, ISBN 978-3-908244-08-0
  4. ^ Günter Huber, Waltraud Müller: Das Arbeitszeugnis in Recht und Praxis. Rechtliche Grundlagen, Musterzeugnisse, Textbausteine, Zeugnisanalyse. 12. Auflage. Haufe, Freiburg/Breisgau, Berlin, Planegg bei München, Würzburg 2009, ISBN 978-3-448-09322-3
  5. ^ Thorsten Knobbe, Mario Leis, Karsten Umnuß: Arbeitszeugnisse: Textbausteine und Tätigkeitsbeschreibungen (dt./engl.). 5. Auflage. Haufe, Freiburg/Breisgau, Berlin, Planegg bei München, Würzburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-448-10118-8.
  6. ^ Doyle, Alison. "References - Will They or Won't They?". Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  7. ^ "Certificate of employment". Website of Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Finland. Retrieved 13 March 2018.
  8. ^ See Section 81 of the Labour Code
  9. ^ Heinz-Günther Dachrodt, Erich Ullmann: Zeugnisse lesen und verstehen. Formulierungen und ihre Bedeutung. ÖGB-Verlag Wien 2000, ISBN 3-7035-0809-4
  10. ^ Lawton v BOC Transhield Ltd, [1987] 2 All ER 608
  11. ^ Wallace v United Grain Growers Ltd, 1997 CanLII 332 at par. 96-101, [1997] 3 SCR 701 (30 October 1997), Supreme Court (Canada), subsequently affirmed in Honda Canada Inc v Keays, 2008 SCC 39 at par. 57, [2008] 2 SCR 362 (27 June 2008)
  12. ^ a b c "Regulatory references: are you ready?". Eversheds. 28 January 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  13. ^ Spring v Guardian Assurance plc [1994] UKHL 7, [1995] 2 AC 296 (7 July 1994)
  14. ^ Byrnell v British Telecommunications & Anor 32 [2009] EWHC 727 (QB) at para. 29, 32 (20 February 2009)
  15. ^ "Data Protection Good Practice Note: Subject access and employment references" (PDF). Information Commissioner's Office. 16 November 2005. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  16. ^ "Data Classification: Issuing of Staff and Student References Advisory Note" (PDF). stir.ac.uk. University of Stirling. January 2015.
  17. ^ "Human Resources Policy No. HR70: Employment References" (PDF). sath.nhs.uk. Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. December 2010.
  18. ^ Salter, Michael; Bryden, Chris (24 June 2011). "Gone but not forgotten". New Law Journal. 161 (7471)., discussing McKie v Swindon College [2011] EWHC 469 (QB) (11 February 2011)
  19. ^ Bartholomew v London Borough Of Hackney & Anor [1998] EWCA Civ 1604 (23 October 1998)
  20. ^ Cox v Sun Alliance Life Ltd [2001] EWCA Civ 649 (9 May 2001)
  21. ^ Smith, Ian; Baker, Aaron (2015). Smith & Wood's Employment Law (12th ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-19-872735-4.
  22. ^ TSB Bank Plc v Harris [1999] UKEAT 1145_97_0112 (1 December 1999)
  23. ^ Jackson v Liverpool City Council [2011] EWCA Civ 1068 (15 June 2011)
  24. ^ Crown Commercial Services, Procurement Policy Note 11/14: references and public procurement, published 10 December 2014, accessed 6 May 2021
  25. ^ Crown Commercial Service, Procurement Policy Note – References and Public Procurement, published 10 December 2014, accessed 6 May 2021
  26. ^ "CP15/31: Strengthening accountability in banking and insurance: regulatory references". Financial Conduct Authority. 6 October 2015.
  27. ^ "Strengthening accountability in banking and insurance: regulatory references - CP36/15". Prudential Regulation Authority. 6 October 2015.
  28. ^ "india - What is a relieving letter? What are the consequences of not having one?". The Workplace Stack Exchange. Retrieved 2022-03-31.
  29. ^ "How To Write Relieving Letter: A Complete Guide With Example". Indeed Career Guide. Retrieved 2022-03-31.
  30. ^ "Did your employer ever deny the Experience Certificate? Read on. – People First". 5 February 2020. Retrieved 2022-03-31.
  31. ^ "THE KERALA SHOPS AND COMMERCIAL ESTABLISHMENTS (AMENDMENT) BILL, 2014" (PDF). 5F.Issue of service certificate. Every employer shall provide service certificate to the employees, in such manner as may be prescribed, at the time of resignation or retrenchment or superannuation or while applying for another job.