Q. I have a difficult reference to write. Should I be honest?
I am not going to suggest you should be dishonest, but the law on references is difficult for employers, so care is certainly needed.
You are not legally obliged to provide references, though it is good practice. You would certainly expect one in return, so you should respond.
Remember that staff who believe they were given bad references because of their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation or religious beliefs could bring claims against a former employer.
Also remember that the provider of a reference owes a duty of care to its recipient. So a referee who oversells an employee's skills or integrity could end up paying damages to a new employer who relies on that information and suffers loss as a result. On the other hand, if you provide what you see as an 'honest' reference and this leads to a job offer being withdrawn, the person concerned could sue you for negligence.
The libel laws pose less of a risk because you have 'qualified privilege'.
But let's not get carried away. Common sense must prevail. Provided you act in good faith and you can back up your statements, you should be fine.
Growing numbers of employers now provide 'tombstone' references, which state simply that the person was employed in a particular job from a particular date.
Now people are turning to telephone references, and these are probably much more valuable. In today's litigious society, people are prepared to say things on the phone they wouldn't write down. It is also easier for people to make comments off the top of their heads, so you will probably get a faster response and even a more accurate one.
But be careful here too. Some wretched private sector employers actually tape such conversations or makes notes. The same rules apply: you have a duty to ensure the reference is true, accurate and not misleading.
I suggest a written reference combined with an invitation to get more information from a phone conversation might be the way round this problem.
Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send questions to email@example.com.