There is generally no obligation on an employer to give a reference at all.  There are, of course, exceptions – for example, where unusually there is a contractual entitlement to a reference, or the employer risks victimising or discriminating against an employee by not giving one, or there are Financial Conduct Authority or Prudential Regulation Authority requirements which must be met. In some cases it may be said that an employer has a moral obligation to provide a reference. Either way, the employer's policy on references must be consistent or it could lead to allegations of discrimination.

Who provides a reference?

References can be given on behalf of a business or in a personal capacity. An employer is legally responsible for the contents of a corporate reference because it is provided on its behalf.  It is therefore advisable to have a policy detailing who can give a reference, in what format and what information it can include. To ensure that a personal reference is not taken as a corporate reference, it should not be provided on headed notepaper or include the referee's job title.

What information should a reference include?

A reference does not have to be positive, but it must be accurate and true. There is generally no requirement as to the content of the reference, but given the potential liabilities it is common (and usually advisable) for employers to simply give a short statement confirming the facts of employment, such as the relevant dates and the employee's job title. More detailed references could include information such as the individual's performance, or absence and disciplinary records. However, any comments about performance or absence should not be related to a disability and you should be mindful of data protection obligations and consent requirements. It is often advisable to provide a reference in writing rather than verbally, as there is less possibility of misinterpretation.

What happens if a reference is inaccurate or unfair?

If the subject of a reference believes that it is inaccurate or misleading and has harmed their prospects of future employment, it may be possible for them to sue their former employer for negligent misstatement or even defamation. The individual may also be able to take the employer (and potentially the organisation which is the recipient of the reference) to an employment tribunal if they think that the negative reference is a result of discrimination.

Employers often include disclaimers in a reference to exclude liability to the recipient for any inaccuracies, but disclaimers will only offer protection to the reference giver if they are reasonable.

Data protection 

The provision of a reference will generally involve the processing of personal data by an employer as a data controller and so, as with all personal data processing, will be subject to data protection principles. It is particularly important, when dealing with references, to have regard to data protection requirements when providing information in a reference about an employee's health record or reasons for periods of absence, as this will be special category personal data for the purposes of the GDPR.

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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.