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References for employment

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By ACAS

Key points

Employers do not have to give a reference but if they do it should be fair and accurate, some employers may only give a factual reference stating dates of employment, job title and salary.

  • There is generally no legal obligation to give a reference, if one is given it should be a fair reflection and accurate.
  • Prospective employers must only approach a job applicant's current employer with the candidate's permission.
  • Job offers can be made subject to satisfactory references being received.
  • Job applications should say at what stage of the recruitment process references will be sought.
  • Employers should have a policy of what will happen when a referee fails to reply to a request for a reference.

Employers may ask for two types of references. Job applicants could be asked to provide the contact details for a professional reference from a previous employers or manager who could recommend them for the role they have applied for, or for a character reference from a person who knows them, for example a teacher.

However, in seeking a reference an employer should not ask for personal information or conjecture about the applicant. The reference should be about the candidate's abilities and aptitude for the job.

A prospective employer must only approach the candidate's current employer with their permission. Any request should include relevant questions regarding the candidate's ability to carry out the role applied for and it may be a good idea to enclose a job description for the referee. A simple form asking for confirmation of dates of employment, duties and any particular skills may be adequate.

Job offers can sometimes be conditional and may depend on satisfactory references being received. Prospective employers should remember a referee may simply fail to provide a reference or may wrongly indicate the applicant is unsuitable. Employers may agree to a probationary period in these cases.

Employees can ask for a copy of any reference sent to a new employer, the request should be in writing. The employer will need to consider if any exemptions apply before they can release the information. If a worker thinks a bad reference has been given they may be able to claim damages in a court, but the worker 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.