Employee references

Employee references: what are the obligations of an employer?

Ending an employment relationship is often fraught with potential difficulties, particularly if you need to dismiss an employee. Even once you have successfully followed any relevant processes for dismissal or redundancy, this is not necessarily the end of the story. Most employees will need to ask you for a reference when applying for a new job. So how should you respond when employee reference request lands on your desk?

First of all, it’s worth knowing that you are not generally under any obligation to provide a reference – unless you previously agreed to do so in writing or if the employee works in a regulated industry (such as financial services). However, if you decide to provide a reference for some employees and not for others, you could potentially be accused of discrimination. So it’s a good idea to either adopt a company policy of providing references for all employees or not providing any references at all.

How to provide employee references and what to include

It’s best to provide any references in writing so that you can keep records for future reference. A new potential employer may prefer to have an informal chat over the phone but, unless you are providing the minimal details, it is safer to provide a written reference. You can also “recommend” a former employee on LinkedIn but be careful what you write as this can be viewed openly.

The content of an employee reference often just consists of the bare details, such as job title, period of employment and salary. It’s crucial that any information you do provide is accurate and fair. So, if you sacked someone for gross misconduct, you should not give them a glowing report!

Pitfalls to avoid when providing references

  • Make sure that you have a consistent policy as to whether you provide references or not, to avoid any claims for discrimination.
  • If you decide to provide references as a matter of course, ensure that any facts are fair and accurate.
  • Consider your data protection obligations when providing any sensitive information as part of your reference.
  • Remember that, although a former employee cannot ask a former employer to show them a reference, they can ask their new employer (in the form of a Subject Access Request).

For more information on providing references and what to be aware of when writing references read Employee references.

Camilla Johnson

Camilla Johnson is the digital acquisition specialist for Rocket Lawyer UK. She has a law degree from Keele University, a post graduate diploma in professional legal practice and a diploma in digital marketing.