An employer doesn’t usually have to give a work reference. But if a work reference is given, it must be fair, accurate, and truthful. Employees may be able to challenge a reference if they believe it is unfair or misleading.

References must not include misleading or inaccurate information, and avoid giving subjective opinions or comments which cannot be supported by facts.

Some references therefore might expose the fact that a job applicant is not suitable for the new role that they are applying for, because it might suggest that the applicant doesn’t have enough experience of relevant responsibilities.

Employee references can be brief, and just include the relevant job title, salary and when the employee was employed at the business.

Does an employer have to provide a reference?

Employers must give a reference if:

  • there was a written agreement to do so
  • they’re in a regulated industry, such as financial services

What can you not say when giving a reference?

Personal employee details shouldn’t be mentioned in a reference, including references to race, religion, age or disability status or ethnic origin. Other aspects like marital status, parenting responsibilities or sexual orientation shouldn’t form part of a reference.Can a previous employer say you were fired?

Upon seeking a reference, employers are not prohibited by law from disclosing to a potential employer the reasons that the employee left, as long as the information they share is truthful.

Think about how you’ll explain your work history to a new employer. It’s best to focus on the facts rather than how you feel – this will make it easier to show you acted reasonably.

Getting a reference from someone else rather than an employer

If you think your employer will give you a bad reference or won’t give you one at all, your options are to ask someone else to give you a reference.

Some jobs accept references from other people you’ve worked with – like a different manager or someone you’ve worked for before. Choose someone you’ve worked with recently, preferable with a senior position in the company.

The new employer might ask why you’re not giving your old employer’s details, so prepare your thoughts about how you’ll explain this to them.

You’ll need to give a reference from your old employer if a job application asks for it – but you might be able to give a reference from the other person as well.

What can you legally ask in a reference check?

Essential questions for basic written references include:

  • Dates of employment
  • Job title and main responsibilities
  • Attendance record and number of days sick leave taken
  • If they were reliable, honest, hardworking etc
  • Any disciplinary actions taken against them
  • If there are any reasons why they should not be employed

Questions for more detailed reference checks include:

  • What were the main responsibilities of the candidate in their last role?
  • What are the candidate’s greatest strengths?
  • Do you think the candidate is qualified for this new role?
  • What was the candidate’s reason for leaving?
  • Would you rehire this candidate?

Can you ask for a copy of the reference?

If there is an issue with the reference provided, you do have the right to request a copy of the reference under GDPR regulations. If you’ve lost out on a job because your employer gave you an unfair reference, you might be able to take them to court.

Get in touch with us as your local small business lawyer who will be able to advise you further as to whether a claim is worth pursuing.