Tips on writing referee reports

As a public service manager you have a responsibility to write referee reports for your staff. This can be a daunting exercise if you are unclear about what is expected. Here are some tips to help you.

Details you need to know to write a referee report

Staff member’s track record over time.

  • Job profile and work–related qualities of the job.
  • Work level standards.
  • Whether the job would be a promotion.
  • The rating scale.

To provide useful information a referee must:

  • Have had a chance to observe the applicant in relevant situations.
  • Be competent to make the evaluations requested.
  • Be able to express themselves so their comments are understood as intended.
  • Keep the report factual, based on first-hand information.
 7 suggestions:

1. Write for the level of the position

When writing a referee report your comments need to be about how the staff member will perform at the level of the job they are applying for. This is often a higher level than what they are currently working at. You therefore need to understand the difference between the level they are at and the level of the job they are applying for, and cast your comments to suit the latter.

A question that then comes to mind is: ‘What if I haven’t seen the working at that level?’ In that case you either need to think of times when the work was of an appropriate level, comparable to that of the job being applied for, and consider the person’s potential for working at the higher level.

2. Provide sound comments

The comments you write against each selection criterion are more important than the rating you give. The selection panel may well moderate referee ratings based on the comments. Your comments need to be sufficiently detailed to be helpful to the selection panel and to warrant the rating you give.

3. Choose words wisely

Given that staff may well see the report you have written, you want to be able to look them in they eye after they have read what you have written about them. If their performance is either mediocre or substandard in some area, find a polite way to express this without being too euphemistic.

4. Give the highest rating if this appropriate

Some people express the view that they would never give an ‘Excellent’ rating (i.e. the top of the rating scale). Why have a top rating if no one can ever reach it? We all have moments of excellence. If a staff member consistently performs at an excellent level in a particular area, then give them that rating.

5. Referee reports are not a performance management opportunity

If a person’s performance is substandard in some way, they should not learn about this through your referee report. There should be no surprises. If there are performance issues, these should be discussed and dealt with outside of the referee report process.

6. Be fair to staff

Whether you wish to see the back of someone or would prefer someone stays, a referee report should be fair and accurate. Your reputation is at stake too, so avoid using reports to get rid of someone or to hang on to them.

7. Be aware of your privacy responsibilities

Check the Privacy Commission for advice about what you can and cannot say in referee reports.

11 Tips on writing a referee report
  1. Base your comments on an applicant’s capabilities against the selection criteria on the person’s performance under your supervision.
  2. Opening comment: explain relationship to applicant, length of relationship.
  3. Use examples to illustrate abilities, knowledge, experience and personal qualities.
  4. Highlight strengths. Mention areas needing further development.
  5. Refer to performance level – performs is at, above, below that expected for the level.
  6. Give reasons for level of performance, e.g. job knowledge, qualities such as integrity, reliability, application of skill e.g. problem solving, ability to deal with all routine and complex matters of current position.
  7. Refer to outcomes delivered, e.g. achieves results expected, exceeds results expected.
  8. Requires development: identify areas where close supervision and/or further development are needed to perform at an acceptable level.
  9. Below standard: identify areas where the person would be unable to perform the duties and would require constant supervision, with supporting reasons.
  10. Unable to comment: If you do not have any direct experience of performance in an area, then use this option.
  11. General comments: A closing comment could include a summary of strengths and a recommendation, such as ‘I strongly endorse this person’s application for promotion’, ‘I support X’s application for this position.’
Rating issues for referees

People’s ability to give an accurate rating can be affected by:

  • Recency effect: reliance on recent memory. Make sure you take into account the person’s performance over a reasonable length of time – namely, several months.
  • Negative information: inflating the impact of negative information. Be careful not to let one or a small number of negative factors distort your overall assessment.
  • Tendency towards the average: avoiding very high and very low ratings. If a person performs well, give them a suitably high rating.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.