Employee References

Employee References

We have been asked recently about the giving and requesting of references during the recruitment process, as many people believe you can’t give a reference on an ex-employee.

References are often requested for job applications and can be useful to confirm key facts provided by the potential new employee are accurate (e.g. dates of previous employment, position held, absence, reason for leaving).

In our industry there is no legal obligation to provide a reference, however if you do give one it must be fair and accurate. 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.

Does an employment reference have to be provided?

Employers should have a policy to help them handle reference requests, telling them what information they and their employees can provide. If you choose not to give references then it should be made clear that this is company policy and needs to be applied fairly and across all requests. 

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.

A reference must be a true, accurate and fair reflection of the job applicant. When opinions are provided, they should be based on facts, for example you can’t state that someone is untrustworthy unless you have evidence such as a disciplinary meeting to back this up.

Personal references can sometimes be provided from individuals who know the job applicant such as a teacher, and these can be useful for those entering work or training for the first time.

References should not include irrelevant personal information.

Can an employer give a bad reference?

Yes.  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.

What to do if you receive a bad reference for a potential employee?

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. You may also consider offering a job role on a probationary period in these instances or not offering them a role.

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.

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.

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 a probationary period to assess their suitability.

Download this fact sheet here.