Demystifying Employment References: Some Useful Advice for Employers

June 8, 2018

In this blog, Nuhman gives you some advice on employment references.

By Nuhman Sharif

As you’re probably aware, getting employment references are just one of the many pre-employment checks required once you have made an offer to your successful applicant. Other checks include the validation of qualification certificates and the processing of DBS and/or credit checks, dependant on the role. 

The main reason employers need references is to make sure that the applicant is who they say they are, because sadly, sometimes people aren’t completely truthful on their CV or at an interview. Therefore, references are just another means by which the employer can ensure the applicant is suitably qualified for the role before they hire them!

However, employers must always ensure they get consent from the applicant to contact their nominated referees, (especially now that the new GDPR legislation is in force).

For most roles, employers will request a professional reference (usually from a previous employer), and a character reference (usually from somebody who knows the applicant well such as a school/college tutor). Family members are not allowed to be character referees (for obvious reasons), but that doesn’t stop me from getting them as nominated referees from time to time!

For more specialised roles, more referees may be required. To become a University Professor for instance, the candidate would typically need 10 referees! Don’t forget that if you are ever unsure about anything on a reference you have received back, there’s no harm in giving the referee a quick call or sending a quick email.

One of the big myths surrounding employment references is that a previous employer is obliged to provide a reference, when in fact, this is not the case. In these instances, therefore, you may need to assist your applicant to determine who might be a suitable alternative referee. Where a previous employer does decide to provide a reference, it must be ‘fair and accurate’. 

So does this mean they can provide a ‘bad reference’? Contrary to popular belief, yes it does!

A previous employer can provide a ‘bad reference’, e.g. stating that the candidate was dismissed for a gross misconduct offence (such as theft) provided there is sufficient evidence to back this up. In other words, dismissal due to theft could be mentioned, as long as the allegation had been proven, following a robust investigatory and disciplinary process. 

Although you are technically allowed to provide a ‘bad reference’ instead most employers tend to opt for a ‘tombstone reference’ which is simply verification of the applicant’s start date, job title and leave date. 

Although something I’ve come across previously are ‘malicious references’. This is when the previous employer has intentionally painted the applicant in a bad light (maybe giving them low scores on the transferable skills listed on a template reference request form) simply to get back at them for leaving. In my experience, the applicant usually makes you aware beforehand, and it’s best practice to ensure you have a policy in place to guide you in these circumstances. Usually, an investigation is undertaken and the applicant can be given an extended notice period if this is necessary. It’s also important to be aware that the applicant does have the right to ask the new employer to release the ‘malicious reference’ if they wish to claim damages, in which case they would have to prove that the information provided was misleading, resulting in them having their offer of employment withdrawn. 

As you can gather, obtaining employment references can be tricky at times but the key thing is to maintain good communication channels with your applicants to ensure: (1) you receive the references back in a timely manner and (2) the applicant is fully supported and kept informed.

If you’d like any support with employee references, just get in touch with the team!

Leeds based HR180 is a team of superheroes in HR Outsourcing, Projects and Consultancy committed to work in partnership with organisations of all sizes to establish working policies to go above and beyond Employment Law requirements, to protect both employees and employers alike. We love to hear from you, so call us on 0113 287 8150 or hit the Rescue Me button.

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