Advice Column: References

Thursday 19th May 2022

As part of the Citizens Advice Exeter and The Express and Echo advice column this week we focus on job references.

I am in dispute with my employer and have decided to look for a new job. I am worried that my current employer will provide a bad reference to any potential new employer. Can they do this and what are my rights?

You’ll usually need to ask your old employer for a reference when you’re looking for a new job. Any reference they give you has to be accurate. They can’t say anything that’s not true.

They also have to be fair when they decide what to put in the reference. For example, they can’t say you were investigated for stealing if the investigation decided you hadn’t done it.

Your employer can make the reference as short as they like. A lot of references only say what your job title was and when you worked there.

If you get a bad reference you might be able to ask your employer to change it. You could also see if you can get a reference from someone else instead.

You can ask your new employer for a copy of the reference. You can check what your old employer has said about you and ask them to change it if it’s not true.

The new employer has to give you a copy of the reference if they’ve kept it on file or in an email – even if it’s marked ‘confidential’. You’ll only be able to get a copy if the new employer has kept it. Your old employer doesn’t have to show it to you.

If the new employer won’t give you a copy, you can make a formal request. This is called a ‘subject access request’ or ‘SAR’, and the law says the company has to reply within one month. You shouldn’t have to pay for the copy.

You can find out how to make a subject access request on the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) website – The ICO is the organisation that makes sure people can see the information they’re entitled to.

If you disagree with the reference provided by your old employer contact them if you can. You might be able to speak to someone else if you don’t want to contact your manager directly – for example the HR Department or another manager.

Explain what the problem is and how you’d like them to help in future. Be as specific as you can and focus on the facts rather than how you feel. For example, if you’ve lost a job offer because your old employer gave a bad reference, you could contact them and:

  • tell them you were offered a job but it was withdrawn because of the reference
  • ask them to review the reference to make sure it was fair and accurate
  • ask them to confirm they’ll give a fair reference in future

If you’ve lost out on a job because your employer gave you an unfair reference, you might be able to take them to court. Going to court can be expensive and stressful. You might have to pay a fee and might not win your case. It is best to get advice before making a decision to go to court. For many people, it’s quicker to look for another job or ask someone else to give a reference instead.

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The information contained in these articles does not constitute advice. Citizens Advice Exeter and The Express and Echo accept no liability for the information published. Citizens Advice Exeter is unable to respond to individual requests for advice through these columns. Copyright Citizens Advice. For the most up-to-date information, please visit