Almost every employer will ask applicants to provide details for at least one reference. It is an important tool to establish whether a candidate is suitable for the role they are applying for. 

However, ACAS frequently receive questions from concerned employers and employees who are unsure about what to include in a reference, or what to do when there is a problem.

ACAS has published their new guidance to references on 4th September, with new information on what to include and how to resolve issues.

Does an employer have to give a reference?

No – unless working in specific industries, such as those regulated by the Financial Services Authority, an employer can choose whether they give a reference – or not. They can also decide the level of detail the reference contains.

ACAS recommend that employers have a policy on references that they and their employees can refer to, which tells them what kind of information they should provide.

What can a reference include?

It can range from the basic facts like a job title and employment dates (sometimes referred to as a ‘tombstone reference’), to details about the applicant’s character, abilities, or strengths and weaknesses with regards to the role.

What is important is that the reference is a “true, accurate and fair reflection” of the applicant. This means that where an opinion is given, the employer should be able to substantiate what they say.

Can an employer give a negative reference?

Yes – One of the most frequently asked questions was whether an employer could give a bad or negative reference.

A reference must not include misleading or inaccurate information and should avoid giving opinions that cannot be supported by facts. This can mean some references say a person is unsuitable for the role they are applying for, or that they have not had enough relevant experience. The reference may also give a different reason for leaving or use a different title for the role the applicant had previously.

Resolving reference problems

If a potential employer has concerns about a reference, or they did not receive one, they should discuss this with the applicant first.

Applicants can make a request for a copy of the reference but they won’t necessarily get to see it. The Data Protection Act 2018 and General Data Protection Regulation has removed the right so that any reference provided in confidence is exempt from disclosure under a Subject Access Request. This means that if an organisation receives a subject access request, confidential employment references about the individual making the request, whether created by that organisation or received from a third party, will be exempt from disclosure.