How to write a reference letter

What is a reference letter..

A reference letter or letter of reference is a letter in which the writer makes a general assessment of the qualities, characteristics, and capabilities of a person, or confirms details about that individual’s situation or circumstances. ...

When writing a reference letters never include any negative criticism or defamatory comments as this could constitute libel. If you have nothing good to say about a person it is better to say nothing at all, and simply decline to write a reference letter.

The same applies to giving references over the phone - negative verbal references could be deemed slanderous.

It's better to approach requests for writing references letters positively - everyone has at least one or two good qualities which can be mentioned. If your organization has policies for managers writing reference letters for employees or ex-employees, follow the rules (for instance requiring reference letters to be approved by HR department).

If you require a reference from your employer it sometimes helps to draft one yourself for your manager or HR department - many managers do not have the time or are unsure about what to write, so ask if a draft reference letter would be helpful.


If the addressee is not known or the reference letter is required for general purposes, use 'To whom it may concern', instead of 'Dear Sir or Madam'.

Character reference letters should be recently dated, short and to the point, and very professionally presented. The overall quality of the reference letter reflects directly on the person who is the subject of the reference letter.


Ensure you are acting within your authority if you are writing on behalf of an organization using the official letterhead. You might consider providing one in a personal capacity on your own private letterhead. For all requests for writing reference letters, remember the maxim 'If you can't say anything good, don't say anything'.

If you want to help the person a lot then do so: well-written, positive, reference letters can be very helpful indeed.


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