How To Write An Employee Reference Letter (With Samples)

Ultimate guide to reference letters.


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Last updated: March 18th, 2024

employee reference letter

Last updated: March 18th, 2024

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Writing a reference letter is something that we’re obligated to do once in a blue moon – unless you work in HR. But even if you have experience in writing reference letters, it’s not uncommon to sit down and stare at a blank screen without any idea what to write about a particular employee.

If that’s you right now, don’t worry.

Even professional authors have bouts of writer’s block.

We feel the pressure because we know that writing a reference letter has a tangible impact on the employee’s future opportunities.

In this article, we’ll strip away that pressure and furnish you with inspiration on what and how to write a reference letter – and we’ll even throw in a couple of templates for good measure.

Related: How To Write A Warning Letter To An Employee).

What Is The Protocol For Writing Reference Letters In Australia?

Unlike in other English-speaking countries, like the US and the UK, Australian companies don’t typically use reference letters as part of the hiring process. They’re mainly used for scholarships, grants, and university admissions.

In rare circumstances, a candidate may wish to appendix a reference to their portfolio for a job application if they’ve worked:

  • In a high-profile role or institution such as The Australian Secret Intelligence Service.
  • For someone famous or influential, such as a politician.

References in Australia are usually carried out by recruiters and hiring managers over the phone – mainly because asking referees questions on the spot yields more authentic responses.

Should You Write A Reference Letter?

Usually, a person will ask you to be a referee before submitting your name and contact information to the institution in question. At this point, you need to decide if you wish to proceed.

The benefits of doing so are:

  • Should the employee be leaving your organisation, you’ll part on excellent terms.
  • The employee becomes an ambassador for your company and for your leadership style.
  • You can boost your employer brand and ratings.

Should You Be Concerned About Employer Ratings?

According to Glassdoor, 86% of job seekers look at a company’s reviews and ratings before applying for a job. Rightly or wrongly, those who have a bad experience are two to three times more likely to write an angry review than satisfied employees.


Well, we spend hours scouring reviews on the internet for the best office chair (or even seemingly inconsequential purchases), so, unsurprisingly, future employees are doing their due diligence on your organisation.


You should be. Both current and former employees can leave reviews anonymously on Glassdoor, and three overall metrics impact an employer’s ratings:

  • Overall rating.
  • Recommend to a friend.
  • Approve of CEO.

Those companies with the best ratings naturally attract the best talent.

If you want to boost your rating on Glassdoor – you guessed it – you need to ask for more reviews. Before doing so, you want to ensure you:

  • Leave a positive impression on those you are asking to review your business.
  • Diffuse tension with rogue employees who could write disparagingly.

(Related: How To Give Constructive Feedback As A Manager).

One segment of your workforce you can tap into is those you have written positive reference letters for. You scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours.

But before we dive into all the warm fuzzy feelings that accompany reference letter writing, it’s important to note that not every request will evoke a positive response.

What If I Dislike This Particular Employee?

You’ve hidden your true feelings so well during the employee’s tenure that they’re oblivious to your opinion of them.

If that’s the case, it’s important to remain authentic without being disparaging.

You can tactfully omit criticism from the letter and focus instead on praising the individual (this is covered in “An Honest Reference Letter” section.

It would be grossly unfair to hamper a person’s career opportunities.

That said, if an employee’s tenure ended controversially, or if they are an underperformer, you will struggle to praise them.

In this case, you should suggest they find another referee to help them secure their role.

You may have other reasons to decline, such as not knowing the person’s character or having the time. Most will prefer you to decline the request rather than write a half-assed endorsement.

How To Decline A Recommendation Request [Example].

If you are in a situation where you need to decline tactfully, respond with something along the lines of this:

Hi [first name],

That’s excellent news, and I’m pleased to hear that you’re pursuing such an exciting opportunity that aligns with your ambitions.

Unfortunately, I’m a little tied up, and lack the capacity to give this the focus and attention it truly deserves to support you in your application.

Wishing you the best of luck in your new endeavour.

Kind regards,

[Your name]

Before You Start Writing, Start Plotting.

Writing a glowing reference letter is not dissimilar to writing a story. You’re taking the reader on a journey. You need to hook them from the outset.

Your story starts with the protagonist (your former colleague), and it’s up to you to take the reader on a journey of part of their career (a tiny chapter).

But it needs to be succinct – you can’t go writing War and Peace.

Zzzzz. Zzzzz.

The Three-Act Structure.

Almost all stories follow the three-act structure.

For the sake of simplicity, you can think of your reference letter as comprising three acts: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution.

1. The Setup.

Introduce your colleague and their job title, and explain how you know them. Here’s an example:

“I’m writing to recommend Daniel for the Sydney Green Innovation Grant. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Daniel since 2017, during which time he has been a valued member of the Data Insights team which I head up.”

2. The Confrontation.

Demonstrate the challenges your colleague encountered and how they overcame them. Here’s an example:

“Daniel’s ability to build rapport with key stakeholders in different departments is second to none, and he has helped us foster new ways of working. I recall a time when different functions worked in silos, but Daniel has worked relentlessly to bridge the communication gap among neighbouring teams.”

3. The Resolution.

Describe the impact of your colleague’s efforts – commercially, operationally, and socially. Here’s an example:

“When Daniel struck up a relationship with the Buying Team, he leveraged his contacts to pioneer a new low-cost, high-volume pricing strategy, which resulted in sales growth of 18.5% YoY for that particular product portfolio.”

Expert Tip.

Divide the page into three headings and add salient bullet points as you go. You can flesh these out later and delete the heading before you submit.

Show, Don’t Tell.

Along the way, you’ll need to weave in specific examples of work the employee has carried out. It’s not enough to say, “Daniel has a good work ethic.”

You need to show the reader through a specific example, like this:

“During the festive period, Daniel often arrived early, worked through his lunch, and stayed late after working hours to ensure the completion of a major product launch, which saw the company triple its market share.”

Dropping in specific performance targets (KPIs) and milestones is an excellent way of showing proficiency:

“Daniel’s work meant that the category beat the sales target by 34%, bringing in an additional $2,320 in recurring revenue each month.”


Before you start writing the employment reference letter, you need to marry it up with the requirements of the opportunity in question. You’ll then have a stronger idea about the kind of story you will tell.

Ensure Your Reference Letter Is Personalised To The Employee And The Opportunity.

What you write and how you write depends on the audience. So, who’s your audience? What industry do they operate in? And what kind of qualities are they looking for?

Think of this stage as defining a genre.

If your employee is applying for a grant on behalf of a non-profit organisation, you’ll need to highlight their compassion, relevant skills, and enthusiasm for doing the right thing.

With all that in mind, here are some reference letter templates you can use.


Your reference letter should be specific to the employee, not something an AI chatbot could spit out. Write in your own voice and express how you feel.

A Glowing Employee Reference Letter [Sample].

You would write this for an employee who goes consistently above and beyond.

Dear [institution name],

I’m writing to recommend [employee’s full name] for the [opportunity]. I’ve had the pleasure of working with [employee’s first name] since [year they/you joined], and [mention relationship to employee].

Throughout that time, [employee’s first name] has worked as a [employee’s job title] and their main duties included [briefly mention main duties].

[Employee’s first name]’s ability to [mention specific attribute/s] exceeded my expectations and those of other employees. I recall a particular time when [mention challenge], during which [employee’s first name] [explain how they overcame the challenge: resources used, their approach, and people engaged].

As a result of [employee’s first name]’s efforts, [mention the commercial and social impacts of the outcome].

This is just one of the specific examples of the value that [employee’s first name] demonstrated in their time working with us. Were I afforded the time, I would gladly recount several more instances of the value [employee’s first name] added during their tenure here at [your organisation].

I recognise this is a great opportunity for [employee’s first name] and I have no hesitation in recommending them.

Should you have any further questions, please get in touch with me by [provide preferred contact information].

Best wishes,

[Your name]

[Your organisation]

A Reference Letter Template For An Average Joe [Sample].

You would write this for an employee who is punctual and does most of what’s required of them.

Dear [institution name],

I’m writing to recommend [employee’s full name] for the [opportunity]. I’ve known [employee’s first name] since [year they/you joined]. Throughout that time, [employee’s first name] has worked as a [job title/s] and their main duties included [briefly mention main duties].

During their tenure, [employee’s name] consistently demonstrated great [mention two to three key skills]. [Employee’s name] played a pivotal role in [specific project or achievement], which resulted in [describe the outcomes and benefits of employee’s contribution].

Aside from their technical capabilities, [employee name] is a pleasure to work with and highly regarded by their peers and seniors. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend [employee name] for the [opportunity].

If you require any further information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by [provide preferred contact information].

Many thanks,

[Your name]

[Your organisation]

An Honest Reference Letter Example For An Underwhelming Performer [Sample].

You would write this for an employee who has performed unsatisfactorily.

Dear [institution name],

I confirm that [employee’s full name] was employed as [job title] at [company name] from [start date] to [end date].

Their job carried the following responsibilities:

  • [Primary job duties]
  • [Secondary job duties]
  • [Tertiary job duties]

[Employee name] is proficient in [mention personal attributes or skills, but omit behavioural characteristics].

If you require any additional clarification on [employee’s full name]’s role and responsibilities, please feel free to contact me at [provide preferred contact information].


[Your name]

[Your organisation]

Can An Employee Sue Me For Defamation?

When writing an honest reference like the example above, stick to the facts and avoid making any judgements or giving your opinions about an individual’s character.

Doing so might hinder the employee’s future opportunities and could lead to legal action (defamation) if your former employee is deemed unfairly portrayed.


This is a cautionary tale, and it’s very unlikely to happen, but in Singapore, the courts awarded ex-employee Ramesh Krishnan S$4 million in compensation when AXA Life Insurance gave him a reference that the courts deemed “incomplete, misleading and unfair”.

While this took place in Singapore, let’s not forget that stranger employment lawsuits have occurred in Australia.

Are References Unnecessary Bureaucracy?

According to Mario Barbatti, professor of chemistry at Aix Marseille University,

“The process of requesting references is a bureaucratic machine involving a lot of people — employers, candidates, referees — who could probably be doing something more useful with their time.”

References are, by their very nature, subjective. They contain prejudices, emotional biases, and a distinct lack of evidence.

Anyone who is in the habit of verifying reference letters will do so with a dose of scepticism. So why do institutions still insist on asking for them?

  • They help them whittle down the applicants to the most qualified.
  • To confirm if an applicant’s employment history is truthful.

A question for HR managers who regularly check candidates’ reference letters: how many times have you rescinded your offer?

HR expert Tim Sackett reckons that only 1 in 1,000 clients have rescinded an offer due to a bad reference.

Agree or disagree?

One thing we can agree on is that very few employees will ask a boss who hates them for a reference. More often than not, the brief conversations that accompany a reference check won’t alter the outcome.

My reason for sharing this isn’t to deter you from putting in effort when writing a reference letter but to take some pressure away from you.

As long as your reference is to a decent standard, and doesn’t include anything incriminating, it will stand the employee in good stead.

Frequently Asked Questions About Employment Reference Letters.

Here are some frequently asked questions that provide further context to the subject of employment reference letters.

How many words should an employee reference letter be?

A good recommendation letter should be about one page in length, around 300 to 500 words.

The letter should consist of three parts: the opening, the main body, and the closing.

Anything greater than a page in length is likely to be scanned rather than fully digested. Remember to break up paragraphs by subject to avoid aesthetically displeasing chunks of text.

What Are The Different Types Of Reference Letters?

There are three main types of references that an institution may request.

  • Character reference letters (aka personal letters)are written by friends or family members and draw upon a person’s lifestyle.
  • Academic references are provided by tutors, mentors, and dissertation supervisors, and cover a student’s scholarly ability and dedication as part of an academic programme.
  • Professional references are provided by previous employers and relate to their critical skills, characteristics, and attitudes in the workplace.

The contents of a character reference will vary more greatly than a professional or academic reference.

Some will be written by family members and will demonstrate how a person is a loving parent; an associate may write about this particular person’s financial skills as the treasurer of a community club.

Whatever the contents (whether it’s work achievements or personal achievements), it’s still a good idea to follow the three-act structure, as discussed earlier.

After all, we’re here to tell a story about the candidate – we’re here to paint pictures with words.

Endlessly listing traits and characteristics is the literary equivalent of taking a chloroform rag to the nostrils. Don’t send the reader to sleep with disconnected anecdotes.

Can you lose a job offer because of a bad reference?

An institution may withdraw an offer if the candidate is found to have provided incorrect information. Before submitting your reference, you can share it with the employee to ensure the information aligns with what they’ve submitted.

There’s a huge burden of responsibility on a referee – or the author.

Here’s some of Albus Dumbledore’s sage wisdom that encapsulates that responsibility: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”

Take your responsibility seriously. Someone has come to you to sponsor them for an amazing opportunity. Their future is (to some degree) in your hands.

Key Takeaways On Writing A Reference Letter.

If time is on your side, and you really want to maximise the chances of a person landing this opportunity, don’t try to write the reference in one sitting.

When you step away from your desk or stop tapping at your smartphone, your subconscious mind is still hard at work trying to plug the gaps.

Later, ideas will spontaneously pop into your head when you’re driving, or when you’re in the shower, or rather annoyingly, the moment your head hits the pillow.

They have a habit of springing out on you anytime, any place.

Always have your Notes app ready on your smartphone. That way, you’ll be ready to capture these ideas when they transition from your subconscious to your conscious.

Whatever you do, don’t think “Oh, I’ll remember that and write it down later,” because more often than not, the idea will escape your memory.


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