Most potential employers will ask you to provide references when they are considering hiring you, so if you are looking for a new job, you should be prepared to provide a list of references or referees who can confirm that you have the necessary skills and qualifications for the job in question.
References may be requested in either written or verbal form, and the number requested and from whom will vary from job to job.
A job offer may be conditional on the provision of a suitable reference, but you should ask permission from the person you intend to use as a referee before passing on their contact details. Ensure that you ask the most appropriate person to provide the reference, for example, it may be your manager, supervisor, a colleague, or university professor. If this will be your first job, you may be able to provide personal or character references from people who know you well.
If you are concerned that a request for a reference would cause problems in your current employment, you should ask your prospective employer to wait until you have told your current employer that you are leaving. If you are dismissed because your employer was asked to provide a reference, you could have a claim for unfair dismissal. If you think this applies to you, you should seek legal advice.
You can ask your new employer for a copy of any references that have been provided from previous employers, which they should give you under data protection laws.
It is good practise for an employer to provide references for their employees, but they do not have any legal obligation to do so, unless this is specified in the employment contract. If a reference is given, it should be true, accurate and not deliberately misleading, otherwise the employee may have a claim for libel, or constructive dismissal if the person is still an employee. An employee may also be able to bring a claim for negligence where a reference was prepared negligently or in malice. Employers should not comment on alleged misconduct where there has been no proper investigation, nor should personal information be divulged without prior consent.
If your employer refuses to give you a reference if you had previously complained of discriminatory behaviour, you may have a claim for continuing discrimination.
If you are an employer and are asked to provide a reference, you may wish to only provide a short statement confirming that the dates of employment and job title of the employee. Most employers will however provide more substantial references, which may include, for example, the length and dates of service, positions held and key responsibilities, performance, punctuality and any periods of absence, integrity, relevant personal information and reasons for leaving, if known.
For more information, contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau. Further guidance can be found on www.nidirect.gov.uk or by contacting the Labour Relations Agency on 02809032 1442.
Sian Fisher is an Information Officer with Citizens Advice.