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Employment references

Reference or Confirmation of Employment? What is your View?

I recently received an enquiry relating to an employer providing a bad reference, in respect of a former employee and I was a little shocked, as usually employers only provide a standard reference, which is the dates the employee worked and their job title.

The issue made me think about the reason employers only like to provide a standard reference and whether the information provided really makes it a reference, or have references simply become a confirmation of employment?

The Requirement to Provide a Reference

We all know that an employer usually provides a former employee with a reference, for a prospective new employer, on request. However, employees should be aware that unless there is a written agreement or you are in a regulated industry i.e., financial or legal services, your employer is not actually required to provide a reference and could refuse or ignore the request.

Why do Employers Request a Reference?

An employer will usually make a job offer conditional on satisfactory references, this means that if an employee’s references are not as expected, the employer can terminate the employee’s employment contract, or rescind the offer if their employment has not commenced.

The purpose of a reference, therefore, must be to determine how suitable, the prospective employee is, for the role offered.

A standard reference provides no assistance, to an employer trying to determine a candidate’s suitability, as it does not provide any information of their character or duties.

Nonetheless, it has become standard practice to only provide standard references and employer’s now do not expect to receive detailed information from a candidate’s former employer.

Why do Employers Only Provide Standard References?

Employers have become increasingly reluctant to provide detailed information about an employee or former employee, due to the risk of litigation.

As set out above employers (unless legally required) do not need to provide a reference, but if they do it must be fair and accurate.

Given, employers now make job offers conditional upon receiving a satisfactory reference, this places the former employer under pressure, as if the reference they provide is not deemed satisfactory, by the new employer, the employee could lose their new job.

This could lead to the employee trying to claim damages, from their former employer, for the loss they have suffered. As such, employers, understandably, do not want to be led down this rabbit hole, and thus the standard reference, has become the safest option.

Advising Employees on Standard References

My colleagues and I are often required to advise employees on the reference an employer will provide.

Many employees, particularly if they have worked for an employer for a significant amount of time, consider it unfair they will only receive a standard reference and want the employer to provide more information, which usually relates to the employee’s character and their duties.

When advising employees on this matter, we confirm a standard reference is what their new employer will expect to receive, and as such, it should not prejudice them. We also usually recommend they ask a manager or someone they have worked with for a personal and more detailed reference.


As the question is raised more and more, it made me think about the term reference, which I take to mean, you provide information on a specific individual. In the context of work, this should include comments about their character and their ability to undertake a specific role. After all, this is the purpose employers ask for references.

However, for the reasons set out above, a standard reference cannot realistically determine an employee’s suitability for a role. In the circumstances, I do not consider that what employers now provide can be deemed a reference, as it provides no meaningful information.

Instead, what a standard reference does, in my view, is provide confirmation of employment, as it confirms an employee was employed between certain dates and confirms their job title or role.

What do you think? Do you agree? What purpose do you think a standard reference really has?

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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