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What Is an Employment Reference Letter?

By Christina Edwards
Updated Feb 04, 2024
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An employment reference letter is a letter written to the future employer of an individual. Most reference letters help confirm an employee's employment details with a company, as well as highlight his positive professional qualities. This type of business letter should be written by a professional acquaintance of a prospective employee.

When an applicant is trying to secure a new job, it is often recommended that he have at least one employment reference letter. This letter should be written as a business letter. The return address and contact information, along with the date, should be printed at the top. If known, the receiver's address should be typed just below the return address.

Unlike a personal letter, an employment reference letter should be written in formal language. Slang expressions and humor, for instance, should be avoided. Generally, this type of letter should be written to a specific person at a potential new employer. If the letter writer is unsure of a contact person's name, he should use a general greeting like “To whom it may concern.”

One purpose of an employment reference letter is to confirm that an individual worked for the letter writer's company. Specific dates that the individual worked at the company should be included, along with his title or position. Some employment reference letters may also include salary information.

Another purpose of an employment reference letter is to highlight an individual's skills and strong points. A letter writer may include information about an applicant's positive attitude or his work ethic. Specific examples of a former employee's strong points should also be included, if possible. For example, if a former employee helped reduce a company's costs, this should be explained briefly in an employment reference letter.

An employment reference letter should not be written by just anyone. Although a reference letter written by a boss is impressive, one written by a co-worker or supervisor will work as well. It is typically best for an employment reference letter to be written by someone that an applicant has worked with closely. This type of letter should also be written by someone with a high opinion of the applicant.

Asking for an employment reference letter is traditionally done via a formal business letter. In this letter, the asker should make it clear that he respects the prospective letter writer's opinion and why. He may also want to remind the prospective writer of some of his skills and accomplishments.

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Discussion Comments

By Windchime — On Sep 05, 2011

@angelBraids - I work in higher education in the UK and we are forced to have all employment or character references checked by a manager before sending them out. This is to make sure we stick to the rule you mentioned.

A colleague was aksed to write a letter for a graduating student to keep for the future. It was tricky because the guy was really lazy in classes. He ended up writing 'You'll be lucky if you get Mr. XXX to work for you". I thought that was a clever way of putting it!

By angelBraids — On Sep 04, 2011

@Mykol - Here in the UK you are not allowed to write a reference letter which contains misleading information.

In the past I think an employer would wax lyrical about someone's amazing talents, skills and abilities, just to make sure they actually got the job and out of their company!

Although I think lying about the person named in a job reference letter is bad, but it is equally bad news for the employee if it shows them in an unattractive light. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a referee who focuses on a positive point and ignores the rest! (Which I am glad to see you do.)

By Valencia — On Sep 03, 2011

@manykitties2 - I have been in the same position, holding excellent reference letters which become outdated as time passes.

Because I work in a quasi freelance capacity I add the older ones to a file and use them as back up if I come across a really fussy employer. Just make sure that you're collecting more up to date employment reference letters as time passes.

When I send out my resume I focus on the past couple of years, and those are the jobs a potential employer wants to know about. After all, you could have been a real hotshot ten years ago - but have a bad attitude now.

By snickerish — On Sep 03, 2011

@alfredo - I remember that feeling of not wanting to impose on my previous employers and professors clearly! Especially as your professors have so many students graduating at once.

However, I have now been in the position of writing the employment reference letters and I never feel inconvenienced. I think most employers remember what it is like to be in your shoes, so they do not mind especially if you have put time and effort in to the work you did for them.

By aLFredo — On Sep 02, 2011

When I graduated from college and was looking for jobs I was nervous about asking for employment reference letters from professors and the employees I had during that time.

It was not because I was nervous about what they would say, but I hated to put my employers and professors in that position if they were really busy and did not have the time to write one or write a thorough one.

Has anyone else worried about this?

By seag47 — On Sep 02, 2011

I had to write a reference letter for an employee who tried her best but just didn’t measure up to the others in her department. I saw her intentions, and I knew that her work ethic would be an asset to any company, so I decided to focus on that.

First, I looked at sample employment reference letters online to get a better idea of how to get away with focusing on just one good point of a person. I got some ideas, and I think I made it sound convincing.

I really wanted her to get the job, because she truly always did the best she could. I knew that she would have to pass a test first, so the boss could use his own judgment about her capability. I did my part to help out, and the rest would be up to her.

By StarJo — On Sep 01, 2011

I lucked out with my employment reference letter. I was leaving my job because my husband had to move to another state for work, and I had already had an interview with a company there. Come to find out, the lady who interviewed me was the sorority sister of my current boss. She asked if I could get her to write a reference letter for me, and I said I would ask for one.

When my boss found out who I would likely be working for, she was thrilled to write the letter. It ended up not being the most professional one, because she threw in some personal stuff and catching up, but it worked. Within a week, my interviewer called and said that I had received a glowing recommendation. I got the job.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 31, 2011

My friend works for a company that I was interested in working for, and she told me some things I never would have found out about otherwise. I had asked my boss to send an employment reference letter to the manager there, and though he had done this, it ended up hurting me rather than helping.

The manager is close with my friend, so he told her about the letter. It didn’t state any strong points. All it did was list my job duties and years of employment. This concerned the manager, so he called my old boss, who ended up telling him that there really wasn’t anything special about my work and I lacked motivation. This really hurt me, but at least I know why I didn’t get the job.

By kylee07drg — On Aug 31, 2011

When I left my job of 6 years, my boss offered to write an employment reference letter for me. He respected my reasons for leaving, so he was willing to help me find another job.

I had to drive thirty miles each way every day, and the cost of my gas was getting to be too much when compared with my recently cut salary. Also, I needed to find a job that aligned more with my husband’s work schedule, because we hardly ever got to see each other.

My boss wrote a very nice letter that mentioned how good my work ethic was and how I rarely ever made a mistake. I didn’t have a job lined up, but I could include this letter in an envelope with my resume when I did find one to apply for that would suit my needs.

By manykitties2 — On Aug 30, 2011

How long do you think you should keep an employment reference letter before tossing it to the wind? Is five years too many...three?

I have several reference letters from past jobs because it was always the easiest way to keep track of those who I had worked with. Unfortunately I know that some of those people no longer work at the company I worked for, while others have long since changed their contact information.

Do reference letters become worthless if you can't get a hold of the person who wrote them?

I am thinking it would be a huge issue, because really, you just could have wrote them yourself and used some fancy letterhead.

By lonelygod — On Aug 29, 2011

Employment reference letters are a good thing to have, but I really believe that it shouldn't be the only thing that employers look at. While references are important, it can make it difficult for someone to get back into the workforce after an extended absence. Often a lot of people just don't keep in contact with those they worked with many years ago.

I know when I took off work for a few years to finish some advanced schooling I only had academic references to attest to my character. It was tough because some people specifically wanted letters from past employers. Ones I hadn't seen in more than 5 years.

By John57 — On Aug 29, 2011

I have always tried to be a good employee at whatever job I am at. Even if I don't care much for the job, I believe in doing my best while I am there.

As far as I know, I have never been given a bad reference, but I have always been curious about what people have written about me in a reference letter from my employer.

Of course I don't ask people to write a reference letter for me if I think they are not going to say positive things, but I am still curious about how it is worded.

By golf07 — On Aug 29, 2011

If you are asked to write an employee reference letter and need some help when it comes to the wording and format, there are several places online where you can find sample employee reference letters.

I have a couple different formats that I use on a regular basis, but once in awhile there is a situation where I need something unique and it helps to have some sample ideas.

Even though prospective employers are used to seeing all forms and styles of reference letters, there are several styles that are pretty standard and easy to follow.

By Mykol — On Aug 28, 2011

I have written several reference letters for employment over the years. Usually I enjoy writing these and have no problems truthfully stating some accomplishments and strong points of the person I am writing for.

It becomes a bit more complicated when you are asked to write a letter for someone who has not been the best employee. This takes a little bit more thought as I don't want to paint a picture that is inaccurate.

In situations like this, I find it best to concentrate on the dates of employment and job duties that were performed and leave it at that.

By cupcake15 — On Aug 27, 2011

@Moldova - Writing an employee reference letter is pretty easy. There are even reference letter templates online that you can follow to draft a reference letter for an employee. I know some people put off writing these reference letters because they don’t know where to start.

I have been asked to write a reference letter, and I must admit I also did not know where to begin because it has been so long since I have written one, but if you do a little research online it is not so hard after all.

By Moldova — On Aug 27, 2011

@Comfyshoes - I don’t know. I think that obtaining an employer reference letter especially from someone high up in the company can really prove that the applicant is a viable candidate for the position.

I always think that if someone with limited time wrote an employee reference letter for an employee, they must have a strong work ethic because not every manager is willing to do this. I know that some companies do not allow managers to offer character reference letters because they simply want the human resources department to handle any inquiries about a past employee’s work history.

A lot of times these human resources departments only verify the dates of employment and nothing else. This is really for legal reasons so that the company cannot be accused of giving our adverse information that would make it difficult for the former employee to get another job. It is really hard to prove that the company gave negative feedback, but I think that companies prefer to be safe than sorry.

By comfyshoes — On Aug 26, 2011

I used to work in human resources and we often preferred that our applicants supplied us with professional references that we were able to verify rather than offering a letter of recommendation. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with obtaining a recommendation letter, but we always felt that it was best to offer it at the end of the interview and not the beginning.

Some of my colleagues preferred verifying the references because if the applicant was too eager to offer the letter we would wonder how accurate the letter really was.

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