How to write a reference letter for a former employee

By Robert Half on 13 June 2023
Estimated Read Time: 3 minutes

If an employee has left your organisation due to changed circumstances or to seek new opportunities, there’s a good chance they will request a reference letter to help them secure their next role. So if you’ve been asked to write one, where do you start?

When it comes to reference letters, there are some important steps to follow to be sure it includes all the information prospective employers need. So, to help you get it right, read on to learn how to write a reference letter for a former employee in Hong Kong.

Before you start

Firstly, it’s essential that you only agree to write a reference if you feel comfortable giving a positive recommendation. If you have any reservations about doing so, it’s better to politely decline. Anything less than a strong endorsement of their attributes and abilities will likely be more of a hindrance than a help.

Before you start writing, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the type of role your former employee is seeking. Having this information will help you highlight any specific skills, attributes or achievements that are relevant to the position or industry. If they are actively applying, requesting a copy of the position description can be helpful. Additionally, if it’s been a while since you worked together, requesting their current resume is a good way to refresh your memory on their key strengths.

Related: Discover 5 reasons employees resign (and learn how to keep them)

What should you include in a reference letter?

When writing a reference letter, using a template (like the one below) will save you time and effort, just be sure to personalise it. In most cases, you will only be asked to write a reference for former employees, however at times a current employee may ask for one too. Both letters will be similar, with the only real difference being your wording around their current situation.

Whether you use a template or not, include the following elements:

  • Contact details: Always list your contact information as well as the recipient’s details at the top when the format is a printed letter or PDF. If you are directly emailing, put your contact details in your signature at the end.
  • Salutation: If you are writing a general letter where the recipient’s name is unknown, start with ‘To whom it may concern’ or something similar. If you know the recipient’s name, address it directly to them.
  • Introduction paragraph: Briefly explain your connection to the person and a why you are qualified to speak as a reference. Include details on the length of time you have known them/worked with them.
  • Main paragraph/s: In the next paragraph (or two) explain the former employee’s qualifications, strengths, skills and experience. Back up your claims with specific examples where possible.
  • Conclusion: Summarise the key reasons you recommend them, and invite the prospective employer to contact you if they require further information or have any questions.
  • Sign off: When you sign off include your full name, job title and organisation (if relevant) and signature if a written letter. For emails, add your contact details below your email signature.

Related: Learn the value of having a succession plan

Reference letter template

Using a template makes the job of writing a reference letter much faster and easier. The below template can be personalised and adapted as required to suit your needs.

1 June 2023

To whom it may concern,

I write to recommend Mary Smith as a candidate for a position within your organisation. As the manager of the claims department at ABC Insurance, I have worked closely with Mary since March 2016 when she commenced work as a Data Analyst in my department.

During the 7 years I have worked alongside Mary she has demonstrated a high level of skill, accuracy and diligence. Her organisational skills and attention to detail saw her work effectively both independently and as part of a team. Her projects were always delivered in a timely manner and her ability to interpret complex data and present her findings to stakeholders and managers via reports and during presentations was highly regarded. I believe these attributes and her personal qualities will see her thrive as an employee at your company.

Over the duration of her employment, Mary showed strong growth and was always willing to upskill via training and take on extra responsibilities to help the wider claims team. She was responsible for training new staff members and always went above and beyond expectations in all tasks she undertook.

I have no hesitation in recommending Mary and believe she will be an asset in any role she chooses to pursue. Should you have any questions or require additional information, don’t hesitate to contact me.


[Insert signature]

Michael Davis

Claims Manager

ABC Insurance

Related: Find out how to deal with an employee resignation

Top tips for writing a winning reference letter

Want to really make your reference letter shine?

Violet Chi, Senior Division Director at Robert Half Hong Kong and specialised financial services recruiter suggests you keep it short and impactful, with a personal touch. ‘The best reference letters are those that avoid being generic, are direct and to the point, and only include the information that counts. Keep in mind that the reference letter may not be reviewed until the latter stages of the interview process, so include strong examples and statements that really drive home the suitability of your former employee.’

If you are struggling to pinpoint a specific skill or achievement to include, revisit the job description of the position they are applying for (or are seeking in the future) and try and align your letter with the must-have and desirable skills listed there.

Ready to uncover your next star employee?

If you’re ready to uncover a new employee that has the skills and experience to hit the ground running, talk to our team today. As Hong Kong’s leading recruitment agency, we’ll help you find the right fit sooner.

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