What is a reference letter?

Find a job you love on Magnet.me

What is a reference letter? Examples of reference letters

You may have heard of reference letters, but what exactly is a reference letter? In this article we explain the meaning of the word, what they are used for and why they’re important. We’ll also give you some examples of reference letters to help you understand what it looks like.

What is a reference letter?

A reference letter, also called a letter of recommendation or just a reference, is a written statement by your employer in which they declare the period during which you worked for them, and what tasks you performed for the company. During job interviews, some employers will ask you for a letter of recommendation from a previous employer. A letter of recommendation is not something you automatically receive; usually you’ll have to ask your (former) employer for one. When you ask for a reference letter, your employer has to provide you with one.

People who ask their employers for a reference letter, will usually do so in their resignation letter. Alternatively, some people ask for one after they get fired. You can view a reference letter as evidence of the duration of your employment and the tasks you performed, provided by your employer. This is also potentially valuable evidence regarding your performance for your next employer. When you’re applying for a job, this can help you leave a good first impression.

What information must a reference letter contain?

A reference letter is a formal and concise document, and you usually won’t find extensive descriptions in it. A document has to contain certain elements to be considered valid. It must contain:

  • The start date and end date of your employment with this employer
  • The amount of hours per week you worked for this employer
  • Your position in the company and the duties that came with it

In some cases the employer will add some more information to the letter. For example, they might discuss your performance, why you no longer work for them, and the circumstances under which your employment with them ended. Keep in mind that your employer has the right to criticise or negatively describe your performance in this document. If you didn’t leave your previous employer on amicable terms, it might be best not to ask for a reference letter.

Example of a positive reference letter

Now you know what you should find in a reference letter. In most cases, the letter you’ll receive from an employer will be positive. After all, more often than not you’ll leave a job on good terms. Below, you’ll see an example of a positive letter.


[contact details of the sender]

[contact details of the recipient]

[city name]: [date]

Regarding: Reference letter for [name]

To whom it may concern,

With this letter of recommendation, [company name] declares that [your name], born on [date] and currently residing in [city], has worked for the company in the role of [job title] from [start date] to [end date] for [number] hours per week.

During this period, [your name] has performed the following tasks and activities: [list of tasks]. These tasks were performed to our satisfaction and this has helped us to further develop our company. We are very pleased with [your name]’s overall performance.

[you name]’s departure was initiated at their own request, as they indicated that they were looking for a new challenge with opportunities for growth. We wish [your name] all the best with their next challenge and look back on doing business with them with appreciation.

Sincerely,

[employer]

Signature


Example of a neutral reference letter

As we said before, the contents of a reference letter are not necessarily positive. It’s possible that your previous employer wasn’t happy with your performance. In such cases, the employer will usually be accommodating and refrain from including negative comments in the letter, opting instead for a neutral tone. This makes for a very formal and often concise letter. Below, you’ll see an example of what a neutral reference letter might look like.


[contact details of the sender]

[contact details of the recipient]

[city name]: [date]

Regarding: Reference letter for [name]

To whom it may concern,

With this reference letter [company name] declares that [your name], born on [date] and currently residing in [city], has worked for the company in the role of [job title] from [start date] to [end date] for [number] hours per week.

[your name] resigned at their own request.

Sincerely,

[employer]

[signature]


Bear in mind that a neutral reference letter does not make a good impression with a new employer. A previous employer not having anything good to say about you is a bad sign to them.

Example of a reference letter after getting fired

Were you fired by your employer? Even in that case it can be a good idea to ask for a reference letter, especially if the reason for your dismissal had nothing to do with your performance, such as with a downsizing or redundancy. Then, it is very important that you can demonstrate that it was through no fault of your own. Below, you’ll find an example of a letter after a dismissal.


[contact details of the sender]

[contact details of the recipient]

[city name]: [date]

Regarding: Reference letter for [name]

To whom it may concern,

With this letter of recommendation, [company name] declares that [your name], born on [date] and currently residing in [city], has worked for the company in the role of [job title] from [start date] to [end date] for [number] hours per week.

The dismissal of [your name] was on the initiative of the employer. The reason for the dismissal is a restructuring of the department at which [your name] worked.

Sincerely,

[employer]

[signature]


Reference letter from school versus a diploma

Not only employers can write reference letters, it is also possible for a school to provide one. However: this is not the same thing as getting a diploma. Usually, you will receive this letter from a school if you have almost completed your education at the time you left the school. For example, it might be possible to get a letter of recommendation from a school if you weren’t able to complete your finals because of external factors, but you want to be able to enter vocational education. In that case, the letter might be the thing that makes a college decide to let you enrol in spite of a lack of a certificate. This will usually only happen under certain conditions. For example, they might ask you to finish the exams during your first year.

If you’ve completed several subjects at college but you didn’t get a diploma or degree, it will often be possible to ask for a letter of recommendation. This allows you to enter the job market with a way to demonstrate that you do possess a certain level of professional and intellectual ability. This is a good idea especially if you’ve completed subjects that are relevant to your field.

More and more professionals choose to take individual subjects without the aim of getting a degree, opting instead to try and get a reference letter. The choice of an associate degree instead of a ‘classical’ academic degree is also gaining in popularity. In some ways, the associate degree can be seen as a recommendation letter of sorts, that serves as evidence of your professional and intellectual abilities.

Frequently asked questions

Now you’ve read the article, you’re aware of what a reference letter is. You know that your employer has to provide you with one if you ask for it. You know that they are usually positive, except in cases where your performance wasn’t up to scratch or if you did something that was a reason to fire you. An employer is allowed to be critical of your performance or mention what made them decide to fire you. Lastly, you also know that it’s possible to receive a letter of recommendation from a school. This provides evidence of your intellectual and professional ability and helps you enrol at a new course or get hired at a job.

If you want to take a quick look at the most important questions regarding reference letters, below are some FAQs.

What is a reference letter?

A reference letter is a document provided by a (former) employer in which they state the period during which you worked for them, what tasks you performed for the company, and why you left.

What information has to be in a reference letter?

A reference letter is usually quite concise, although an employer is allowed to elaborate a bit on your performance. It must contain the following things however: the start date and the end date of your employment with them, the amount of hours you worked per week or per day, your position, and the tasks that fell within the responsibility of that position.

What does a reference letter look like?

A reference letter is a short letter that clearly states who wrote it and who the employer and employee in question are. The document will usually contain a salutation, about three paragraphs of text, and a formal closing phrase. A positive letter will usually be a bit longer than a neutral one.