Giving a reference for a previous employee can be a bit of a minefield and recently ACAS has published some guidelines on the provision of references which we discuss in our blog today.
Firstly, (with the exception of some specific regulated industries, there is no legal obligation to provide a reference for a previous employee which means you can choose to decline the request altogether.
There are a number of different levels of reference you can give which we cover below:
- You may choose to give a basic reference in which you simply confirm the dates of employment and job title. Many employers choose to stop at this point and in fact, make this their policy however you do have the option to provide further information.
- If you are asked specific questions on the reference you can choose to answer these, examples may include absence levels or reason for leaving. Generally, as long as you stick to the facts (and you are confident the facts are accurate) then this is unlikely to cause any problems. You are not providing an opinion, merely confirming facts.
- You may be asked to confirm someones experience or skills. This might be in relation to the job they have applied for or the job they had with you. For example you might be asked if they are skilled at using Microsoft Excel, its reasonable to confirm they are skilled in this on the basis that they have used it without problems in their role with you. Again, keeping to the facts rather than opinions or assumptions is key. If you are unable to comment (because you do not know) then say this.
- Finally, you may be asked to make comment about the individual’s character, strengths, and weaknesses in relation to work. This is the riskiest request as it carries a degree of judgment with it. You need to weigh up the benefit of providing such a reference. It is not illegal or wrong to make a reference on this basis but you must be fair and balanced. Again you should consider what evidence you have to back that up (although you don’t need to provide this it is a good way to ensure you are being fair).
Be clear about your policy
It is important that you are clear on your policy surrounding references which includes clarity on what you are prepared to include in a reference and who can provide it. Generally, it is best to have one person or department who facilitates reference requests. They will get feedback from managers as required to include in the reference but can ensure a consistent and fair approach.
It would be easy to advise every company to simply confirm basic facts, but as we know currently references are pretty worthless as they contain so little information. There has to be a balance between an objective, fact-based approach and providing useful information. On this basis, also think about what you want to know about prospective employees in the references you request.
Remember you must have permission to request a reference from a current employer. Potential employers should remember a referee may not provide a reference or might inaccurately suggest the applicant is unsuitable. In these circumstances, it may help to discuss any concerns with the job applicant directly first. Your probationary clause is often a good way to give the person a chance or trial.
If you have any questions concerning references please contact us on 01325 288 299 (option 2) and we will be happy to support you. You can also view the new ACAS guide on the ACAS website.