New ACAS guidance on employment references

Napthens - September 25th 2018

ACAS has recently released new guidance surrounding employment references and what should and should not be included.

What is an employment reference?

A reference provides a prospective employer with important information about the working background of their potential new recruit to assist them in gaining an insight as to whether they would be suitable for the role.

A previous employer can typically choose whether they wish to supply a reference and how much information should be included. Typically, in a reference, employers tend to provide a few basic facts about the applicant. However, certain industries such as those regulated by the Financial Services Authority are obliged to give a reference by law.

What can a reference include?

Generally, a reference should seek to address:

  • Basic facts such as employment dates and job descriptions;
  • Answers to questions that are specifically asked, that are not usually covered as basic facts, such as absence levels and reasons for leaving;
  • Details about the applicant’s skills and abilities; and
  • Details about the applicant’s character, strengths and weaknesses in relation to the role they have applied for.

However, it is important that any reference provided is a true, accurate and fair reflection of the job applicant. Employers should avoid making subjective comments about employees where possible which cannot be backed up with objective evidence. In addition, any reference provided should be based purely on fact. Should a personal reference be requested, you should ensure that only relevant personal information is provided.

Where you request a reference from the applicant’s current employer you should ensure that you obtain the applicant’s prior consent.

Can an employer give a bad reference?

In theory it is possible for an employer to give a ‘bad’ reference. However, any information contained within the reference must be fair and accurate. In addition, references must not include misleading or inaccurate information and should always be supported by fact. As such it is entirely plausible that a reference could portray a potential applicant in a negative light.

However, as a potential employer you should remember that a referee may refuse to supply a reference or inaccurately suggest that the applicant isn’t suitable. In such a scenario it is advisable to speak to the applicant and address any possible concerns, as you could consider offering the role on a trial basis or by imposing an extended probationary period.

Finally, it should be noted that applicants have the right to request a copy of the reference provided directly from the author and could, if the reference was inaccurate, seek damages if they could show that they suffered a loss as the result of the reference.  such as showing they weren’t offered a job as a result of the reference.

If you would like to read the full guidance you can do so on the ACAS website.

Alternatively to discuss this further contact a member of the team.