When looking for a job, a reference letter from a former employer can be tremendously helpful in validating a candidate’s skills, qualifications and experience. However, fear of legal claims and costly litigation prevent employers from doling out references for terminated employees. Writing a reference letter must, therefore, be approached with caution.
Contact your human resources department about the company policy for reference letters for former employees. Many employers have policies about references creating potential liability in claims filed by either subsequent employers or the former employee. Research your state’s law on employer immunity pertaining to reference letters for former employees. Prospective employers would like to obtain truthful and complete references about a candidate’s work history; however, it’s difficult getting information from previous employers who worry about the legal ramifications and potential claims from employees with less than stellar employment records.
Review the former employee’s personnel file to determine the reason why she left the company. The termination reason may also become an issue as you construct a reference letter. Keep in mind the person to whom you direct the reference letter may ask if the former employee is eligible for rehire or if she gave sufficient notice of resignation. If she followed the company policy or protocol for tendering her resignation, these are moot issues, and you can likely move forward to write a letter.
Obtain the addressee's full name and title. In the event the employee asks you to write a generic reference letter addressed "to whom it may concern,” explain the limitations of such a letter. Tell him that you prefer writing a letter to a specific individual or company so you have a record of how the reference letter is being used and for what purposes. A generic reference letter should contain strictly factual information, limited to dates of employment, job title and salary. These are basic facts about employment that would be provided during any verification of employment. When asked to write a generic reference letter, avoid providing more information than what would customarily be included in a standard employment verification.
Draft a reference letter than contains factual information, such as dates of employment, job title, a brief description of duties and responsibilities and, if requested, beginning and ending salary. Double-check the employee’s personnel file to ensure you are providing accurate information and review your draft with the human resources manager, if necessary. If you’re writing a letter that contains more information about the employee’s performance, limit the information you provide to whether the employee is eligible for rehire. If the former employee was a model employee without any performance issues during her employment, construct the reference in a manner reflecting that as long as you have performance reviews to back it up.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In addition, she is a certified facilitator for the Center for Creative Leadership Benchmarks 360 Assessment Suite, and is a Logical Operations Modern Classroom Certified Trainer . Ruth resides in North Carolina and works from her office in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.