Does your employer have to give you a reference?
No, except in some regulated industries like financial services, although in most settlement agreements, an agreed reference will be attached, and you may also have some input into its drafting.
What information will be in the reference?
Most job references are factual, in other words specifying your name, dates of employment and job title. If your employer does provide a more enhanced reference, they should make sure it is accurate and fair as possible- but this subjective. As long as your employer reasonably believes it is fair and accurate, this is as far as they need to go. They also should ensure the reference is not misleading to any future employer. This means, for example, if you were dismissed because of dishonesty, this would almost certainly need to be included in a future reference (assuming one was provided in the first place).
If your former employer knowingly gives an inaccurate, negligent or deliberately misleading job reference, you may be able to claim against them to recover damages if you have suffered losses as a result.
Are you entitled to see a copy of your reference?
Once you start working for a new employer you can ask them for a copy of the reference that they have been given from your previous employers. This is a right that you have under the Data Protection Act, but note your old employers are not obliged to provide such a copy.
What steps can you take to help safeguard a good reference?
In some cases you will leave employment under a cloud, and this can’t be helped. For example, you may have suffered a falling out with your line manager, been at the receiving end of a disputed redundancy situation, or a performance improvement process. This doesn’t mean you will automatically receive a bad reference or not one at all. Even where you do leave under a cloud, many employers will still provide a factual reference when asked if that is their usual policy. What they are unlikely to do, though, is provide a more enhanced and glowing reference.
If you know that a dismissal is on the cards, or that you may be resigning, it pays not to forget (as many do) that you will need a reference to take to your new employer. Therefore, in simple terms, try not to rub your employer up the wrong way as a means of “point scoring” only. This could otherwise backfire.
If you do end up in dispute, which leads to a settlement agreement, a reference is usually attached to the agreement or can be negotiated as part of the settlement terms. Even in circumstances where you would not expect to receive a good reference, many employers will nevertheless agree to provide at least a factual reference.
You should also consider obtaining a written reference from your employer before you leave, and/or before you make any claim against them. You have 3 months in which to make a claim to an employment tribunal once you have left, so it would clearly be beneficial to safeguard the reference before it is put in jeopardy by any adverse steps you plan to take.
You may also be able be able to obtain a personal reference from a manager who you have more of an affinity with if it appears an official company reference may not be as favourable.
Lastly, if you do receive a reference that you are not happy with, try speaking to your old employers and find out why. They may be receptive to amending it to a more favourable light if you can persuade them that what they have written is unfair or without foundation.
Fortunately, most employers do not use the privileged position they have in providing references as a vindictive tool. But this doesn’t mean there are no conflicts, as you may find an employers perception of your capabilities at work was not the same as your own.