Employee reference letters

Employers are generally not obligated to give references, but if an employer chooses to give one there are certain things, such as avoiding discrimination and data protection that they should be aware of. Read this guide to find out in what circumstances employees have to give a reference, what to include and what to leave out.

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Do employers need to provide references for departing employees?

As a general rule, employers are under no obligation to provide references for their existing or former employees who are applying for new jobs. But there are two main exceptions:

  • If there was a written agreement to provide a reference, this must be honoured. For example, this may be part of the employment contract.
  • If the employee works in certain regulated industries (eg financial services) it may be necessary to provide a reference.

Some businesses have a company policy about providing references. This helps to ensure consistency when providing references(either providing references to every employee or to none). This can avoid potential allegations of discrimination.

What must a reference include?

If an employer chooses to provide a reference, it must be fair and accurate. Any problems with the employee - such as poor performance or misconduct - can be included as part of the reference. An employer can provide a negative reference as long as they can back-up their reference with evidence such as poor performance letters or records of any disciplinary action.

However, there is no need to provide extensive details; stating the basic facts (eg job title, dates of employment, salary) is fine.

Bad references

If the worker thinks they’ve been given an unfair or misleading reference, they may be able to claim damages in a court. The previous employer must be able to back up the reference, such as by supplying examples of warning letters.

Workers must be able to show that the reference:

  • is misleading or inaccurate; and
  • they ‘suffered a loss’ - for example, a job offer was withdrawn.

How should a reference be provided?

The best way to provide a reference is in writing, to ensure that a record is kept of any statements made about a former employee (in case they later suspect a reference is discriminatory). Although sometimes references may be sought by telephone, it will often be better to ask for time to respond by email.

LinkedIn is now used by many employees as a replacement for CVs. It is possible to “recommend” connections (such as a former employee) - and this recommendation function can essentially be viewed as a new form of providing a reference. However, note that your recommendation can be viewed by others and that it remains on the LinkedIn profile.

Are there any legal risks when providing references?


A fair and consistent approach should be applied to the provision of references. Not only should the references be fair and accurate in terms of their content, but the decision to provide a reference or not should be applied consistently. Any unfairness or inconsistency may potentially lead to allegations of discrimination.

Data protection

Disclosing any details about your former employees to third parties must comply with your data protection obligations. As a general rule, you should not disclose any sensitive details (eg. regarding the health of an employee) unless legally required; even providing information about sickness absence can be risky.

Do former employees have a right to see the reference provided?

Former employees do not have a right to demand to see any references provided by a former employer. However, they can ask their new employer to see a copy of a reference - known as a Subject Access Request - once they start work.

How can employers avoid any problems associated with references?

  • Have a company policy on references and apply this consistently.
  • Ensure that any references you provide are fair and accurate.
  • Provide your references in writing and keep a record.
  • Consider your data protection obligations.
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Create your Reference letter

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