Every employee has certain basic rights in UK employment law, which we discuss in a series of blog posts.

Basic right no.4 - right to a reference 1The next right in our series is the right to a reference. There is no such right, perhaps surprisingly.

Is my employer obliged to give me a reference?

No. However, if the employer chooses to give one, it must be truthful (to comply with defamation law) and fair (to avoid claims for negligence from the employee and/or the prospective employer).  Also, an employer is under a duty not to discriminate, so if it chooses to give no reference or an unfavourable reference then it must not do so on grounds of sex, age, disability, race etc. And it must not give a poor or no reference because the employee brought a complaint or a tribunal claim about any of these things.

Perhaps because of fears of complaints from former employees and prospective employers who disagree with the reference given, many employers adopt a practice of giving ‘factual references’, that is, dates of employment and job title/duties only, with no details given about disciplinaries or absence record and no  opinion expressed about aptitude or performance.

In rare cases, an employer is obliged to give a reference, eg:

  • The employment contract says that the employer will provide the reference;
  • One is required by a settlement agreement entered into as the employment ends;
  • A regulatory body requires it (eg in the financial sector).

Basic right no.4 - right to a reference 2Can my employer give negative details about me?

Yes. While providing the reference, the employer should give accurate details if they choose to give any details at all. However, they CANNOT disclose your medical or criminal records without the employee’s consent.

Can I get the copy of the reference?

You can request a copy of the reference from either the sending or the receiving employer. Technically, you are entitled to the information, not the document under the Data Protection Act; most companies will just send a copy of the reference if it is a written one. If it was a telephone reference, you are entitled to know what was said but only if it was written down (and stored in a particular way).

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