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man opening a letter containing a reference

Can my employer give me a bad reference?



There is no obligation on an employer to obtain a reference from a previous employer, save in some regulated sectors. Nevertheless, it is of course common practice to obtain a reference.

Few references today are lengthy, and most are limited to covering set questions around length of service, positions held, disciplinary procedures, reliability, and sickness absence. Within these parameters, there is still room for subjective comments, which the employee may not agree with.

When employers do give a reference, it must be fair and accurate. Two people are relying on the fairness and accuracy of the reference – the new employer and the employee, and either can complain if the reference is inaccurate.


The problem

Sometimes employees complain that a reference on them is not fair and accurate, and in extreme cases can cost them their new employment.

It is very important to understand that whilst the employee may have a claim against their former employer for the losses that they sustain, for example not getting the new job, that claim will be complex and time consuming. Given that relations have already broken down, it is unlikely to be cleared up without the need to go to Court and that is always a time consuming and stressful experience. The arguments will be complex because of the subjectivity of the reference and will boil down to “this reference isn’t fair, I think it is, no it isn’t” with no easy insight.

The destructive nature of the argument, particularly if it goes to Court, will take up the employee’s time and confidence, and the time is often better spent rebuilding their reputation and trying to move on in their employment.

Prevention is better than cure. Try never to leave an employer on bad terms or in a hurry. If you do, then try to agree a reference before you go, no matter how weak it may be. It will save a lot of time and stress later.

If you need legal advice on employment issue, please call our team on 0114 2256666.

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