Employment References

References are often asked for in job applications.

There is usually no legal obligation to provide a reference.

Employers who give references must make them fair and accurate.

Employers who ask for references must handle them fairly and consistently.

What is an employment reference?

A reference gives important information to a potential employer that helps them to decide if a job applicant is suitable.

Does an employment reference have to be provided?

A previous employer can usually choose:

  • if they want to provide a reference or not
  • how much information they want to provide

Previous employers may choose to provide a few basic facts about the job applicant and nothing more.

A job applicant's previous managers and colleagues may also be happy to provide more detailed references.

Employers should have a policy to help them handle reference requests, telling them what information they and their employees can provide.

Only certain industries such as those regulated by the Financial Services Authority are required to give a reference by law.

What can an employment reference include?

References can include:

  • basic facts about the job applicant, like employment dates and job descriptions
  • answers to questions that the potential employer has specifically asked about the job applicant that are not usually given as basic facts, like absence levels and confirming the reason for leaving
  • details about the job applicant's skills and abilities
  • details about the job applicant's character, strengths and weaknesses relating to the suitability for the role they have applied for

Previous employers will usually be asked to provide the basic facts and possibly answer some additional questions. However, previous managers and colleagues might also be asked to provide character details.

A reference must be a true, accurate and fair reflection of the job applicant. When opinions are provided, they should be based on facts.

Personal references can sometimes be provided from individuals who know the job applicant such as a teacher.

References should not include irrelevant personal information.

When are employment references needed?

References can be required at any stage of the recruitment process. Job applications should say if references will be required and at what stage of the recruitment process they will be needed.

Employers must only seek a reference from a job applicant's current employer with their permission.

Job offers and references

If a job applicant is offered a job there are two types of job offer that can be made:

  • A conditional job offer. This can be withdrawn if the applicant doesn't meet the employer's condition for example, satisfactory references.
  • An unconditional job offer. Once an unconditional offer is made this cannot be withdrawn and if accepted a contract is formed.

Once an employer has received satisfactory references and informed the job applicant an unconditional job offer can be made.

Employees should consider waiting until they get an unconditional offer before handing in their notice.

Can an employer give a bad reference?

Employers can usually choose whether to give a reference but if they do it must be accurate and fair. References must not include misleading or inaccurate information. They should avoid giving subjective opinions or comments that are not supported by facts.

This means that some references might show a job applicant is not suitable for the role they are applying for. It might suggest that the job applicant doesn't have enough experience of relevant responsibilities, that the reason for leaving the current job is different to what the job applicant put in their application, or that the job applicant didn't describe their current job properly.

Potential employers should remember a referee may not provide a reference or might inaccurately suggest the applicant is unsuitable. In these circumstances it may help to discuss any concerns with the job applicant directly first. An employer might consider offering a job role on a probationary period in these instances.

Resolving problems with references

In the event that a job applicant is unhappy with a reference provided about them they can request, usually in writing, a copy of any reference sent to a new employer. The request would be made to the author of the reference.

For further information go to GDPR - The General Data Protection Regulation

If an external job applicant believes a reference provided for them was inappropriate they may be able to claim damages in a court, but the job applicant must be able to show that the information was misleading or inaccurate and that they have suffered a loss such as withdrawal of a job offer.

For further information go to GOV.UK - Job offers: your rights

Where a job applicant is applying for an internal vacancy, for example a promotion, they should approach their line manager or human resources informally in the first instance if there is an issue with a reference.

For more information go to Raising an issue at work

Employers who are unable to obtain a reference from the job applicant's nominated referee should inform the job applicant and consider whether other suitable references can be obtained. Other options include hiring the job applicant on probationary period to assess their suitability.

For more information go to How to manage performance