Lawrence Stephens

We are a *knowledge business

Emma Cocker comments on challenging bad references from previous employers in The Telegraph

July 2024

Emma Cocker, Senior Associate in the Employment team, comments on whether an employer can give a bad reference, and how employees can challenge a bad reference from a previous employer.

Emma’s comments were published in The Telegraph, 5 July 2024.

“An employer can give a negative reference, but it must be factual. Employers owe the subject of a reference a duty to take reasonable care to ensure the information it contains is true, accurate and fair. The reference must not give a misleading impression. If a referee gives a reference which is misleading, they may be liable for negligence, either to the new employer or the employee.

“In addition, if a referee knowingly includes false information with the intention that the recipient will rely on it, the referee will be liable to the recipient for a civil claim of deceit.

“It is difficult for employees to challenge a bad reference, unless they can demonstrate that the information was inaccurate, discriminatory or was given in retaliation for raising allegations of discrimination or whistleblowing. In practice, most employees will only become aware of a bad reference once a job offer has been withdrawn. At that stage, it is highly unlikely a prospective employer could be convinced to offer a role again, as the seeds of doubt will have already been sown.

“The only real option is for the employee to take legal advice to see whether they have a claim against the referee. If an employee does become aware of a bad reference before it has been shared with a prospective employer, they should try to discuss the reasons for the negative content with their new employer as soon as possible.

“Protecting your reputation is simple: be the best employee you can be. Courteous, on time for work and reliable – these are all behaviours employers hold in high regard. If there are circumstances which might affect your ability to comply with expected norms, such as being a parent or carer, or having a disability, discuss these with your employer as soon as possible so they are aware of any mitigating circumstances.

“There is a common misconception that employers are obliged to provide references. However, with the exception of regulated industries such as financial services, this is not the case. In reality, most employers will provide a “factual” reference, outlining the employee’s name, job titles and dates of employment, but they cannot be forced to provide further information.

“Employers are also entitled to include a disclaimer within the reference that limits any liability to the recipient of the reference. References may be given orally or in writing. However it is generally safer to provide basic factual references in writing with no further information given to avoid any liability to the employee or the recipient. If incorrect or misleading information is given, the recipient may allege negligence. Do not be tempted to say things on the phone that you wouldn’t commit to in writing!

“If you are not happy with a reference provided by your ex-employer, the first step is to find out whether the reference has actually been sent to the prospective employer. If not, you may be able to talk to your ex-employer and see whether they might be prepared to change the content. Remember however that they are under a duty to provide accurate information, so they may not be willing to change it. Also consider whether their approach or any of the information they have provided might be discriminatory, such as commenting negatively on high absence levels if you have taken a period of parental leave, or on your performance which has been adversely affected by a disability.

“If you have been given a bad reference because of or after raising concerns about discrimination, or after you have “blown the whistle”, you may have a claim against your ex-employer for victimisation or whistleblowing detriment. It is important to take legal advice at an early stage to assess whether you might have viable claims against the referee. This will be especially important if you have lost a job opportunity because of a negative reference.”  

If you have any questions relating to the above, please contact a member of our Employment team.