References

University employing managers may need to request references for job applicants and also be called on to provide references for employees who are moving role, or for ex-employees who already work elsewhere.

This guidance aims to provide a summary of the issues for managers to consider when either giving a reference or seeking a reference from a third party.

REQUESTING REFERENCES

Who can provide a reference?

Candidates are asked during the recruitment stage to provide details of at least two people who have agreed to provide a reference for them.  

If the candidate has previously been employed, the referees should be people who have direct experience of the candidate's work, and at least one of them should be the current/immediately previous formal line manager. It is recommended not to use a reference from a relative, friend or colleague who did not have line management responsibility for the individual. 

If an applicant does not have previous work experience, references should normally be sought from individuals who have had professional interaction with the applicant for example in an educational or volunteer work situation.

Candidates will need to explain how each referee knows them (eg 'line manager', 'work colleague', 'college tutor'). References supplied by a relation should not be accepted.

What information should be requested from the referee?

Referees should be supplied with details of the post, usually by providing a job description, and asked to comment on the candidate's suitability for it. They should also be asked to provide details of the dates of the candidate's employment and of any disciplinary processes which are still considered 'live'. The CoreHR e-recruitment system gives candidates the option to indicate whether they consent to their referees being contacted at any time and care should be taken to respect candidate's wishes in this regard.

A pro-forma reference request letter or questionnaire can be downloaded from the 'Documents' list on the right-hand side.

When should references be sought?

Written references should ideally be obtained before a decision to appoint is acted upon. However, offers of employment can be made subject to satisfactory references, and in certain circumstances an appointment might be made on the basis of detailed verbal references in advance of a written reference. In the event of any query about information supplied in a reference, or in the case of a non-supply of a reference, advice from your HRBP in University HR should be sought before proceeding further.

References for internal candidates

Where a candidate currently works, or has previously worked, for the University, it is important that the department offering employment is fully aware of all the circumstances in which a person has previously left another department.

Before making an offer of employment in these circumstances, heads of department, departmental administrators or HR managers must take up a basic reference from the head, administrator or other appropriately senior member of the previous employing department. All candidates are advised of this requirement on the University's Jobs website. This must be done in addition to taking references from the individuals cited as referees by the job applicant. Past difficult cases have often featured references being given by colleagues rather than the head or administrator so it is important that basic employment details, including reason for leaving, are sought from an appropriately senior role-holder.

Heads and administrators responding to such requests for references must disclose all the relevant and material facts and information, especially where problems or difficulties have been experienced with the person's conduct or capability. Where a department employs a person whose departure from a previous department has been problematic and has involved considerable management and personnel resources, the employing department will be directly responsible for the costs associated with addressing any similar employment difficulties should they recur.

Can referees be asked about sickness absence record?

In light of the Equality Act 2010 and Data Protection legislation, departments should not request sickness absence information from referees. 

Confidentiality of references under the GDPR and related UK data protection legislation

A candidate may ask for a copy of a reference by submitting a subject access request under the GDPR/Data Protection Act 2018. However, confidential references are exempt from disclosure.

If you receive a request from a candidate for a copy of a reference, you should forward it the University’s Information Compliance Team (ICT) at: data.protection@admin.ox.ac.uk. The ICT will consult the referee on whether they object to disclosure, and, if so, whether the reference can be withheld.

GIVING REFERENCES

Care should be taken when providing a reference for a current or a previous employee of the University. Departments are advised to follow the principles outlined below when giving a reference:

  • a reference must be true, accurate and fair and it must not give a misleading impression of the employee. Referees also have a ‘duty of care’ to the employee when providing a reference
  • any opinions stated must be backed by factual information
  • only provide the information requested and do not give unnecessary additional details
  • do not include sensitive data in a reference (such as information related to an individual’s physical/mental health, ethnic/racial origin, religious beliefs, sexual life or trade union membership)
  • references should be marked confidential, but referees should bear in mind that any reference provided could potentially be disclosed to the employee under a subject access request
  • a copy of the reference provided should be kept on the individual's personnel file.

Where there are any doubts over providing a reference, advice should be sought from the relevant HR Business Partner.

References for internal candidates

Where a job applicant has previously worked for the University, the recruiting department is required to seek a reference from an appropriately senior person in the most recently employing department. Heads and administrators responding to such requests for references must disclose all the relevant and material facts and information, especially where problems or difficulties have been experienced with the person's conduct or capability.

HR Business Partners can provide advice where departments have concerns about disclosing such information.

 
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