Is A Reference Letter Worth The Paper It's Printed On?

Consolidated Employers Organisation


The Consolidated Employers’ Organisation is a prominent South African membership-based employers’ association that assists businesses to navigate labour disputes and collective bargaining at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and various Bargaining Councils on a national scale - through direct representation, professional support, proactive engagement and training mechanisms.
Many employees don't fully appreciate the importance of a reference letter and how significantly it can benefit their future job prospects.
South Africa Employment and HR
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Many employees don't fully appreciate the importance of a reference letter and how significantly it can benefit their future job prospects. In today's job market, departures from employment don't always come through resignation or reaching retirement age. Instead, many find themselves dismissed for serious misconduct, leaving employers with a bitter aftertaste. Consequently, the notion of providing such individuals with a reference letter can seem like an absurd kindness that many employers are hesitant to extend. This is especially true in instances of dismissal due to misconduct, where employers grapple with the decision of whether to offer reference letters to those being let go.

In spite of the employer's reservations, it's essential to recognise that the law mandates employers to issue a certificate of service to an exiting employee, regardless of the termination reason.

Section 42 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) stipulates that:

"On termination of employment, an employee is entitled to a certificate of service stating—

(a) the employee's full name.

(b) the name and address of the employer.

(c) a description of any council or sectoral employment standard by which the employer's business is covered.

(d) the date of commencement and the date of termination of employment.

(e) the title of the job or a brief description of the work for which the employee was employed at the date of termination.

(f) the remuneration at the date of termination.

(g) if the employee so requests – the reason for termination of employment."

Notably, clause (g) of Section 42 stresses that employers are prohibited from disclosing the reason for termination of the employee in terms of the certificate of service unless the departing employee expressly requests or states that the reason for termination may be disclosed.

Against this backdrop, the significance of a Reference Letter becomes clear. Unlike a Certificate of Service, which primarily documents the tenure and positions held by an employee, a Reference Letter offers a more comprehensive account. It details the specific duties and tasks the employee undertook, as well as their contributions to the company.

Perhaps more significantly, the Reference Letter can highlight an employee's positive traits and skills that are advantageous for future job opportunities. While a Certificate of Service might serve as a basic framework for a Reference Letter, there is no legal requirement for employers to include information about the employee's responsibilities, skills, or achievements during their time with the company. Therefore, a reference letter, which is not mandated by law, offers exiting employees significant leverage in their future endeavours, being a gesture that goes beyond legal obligations solely for the benefit of the employee. A Reference Letter also offers employers detailed insights into a candidate's performance, skills, and workplace demeanour. This deeper understanding aids in evaluating the candidate's potential fit and contribution to the company, unlike the limited information a Certificate of Service provides.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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