You can’t give a bad reference, can you?

That is a comment we hear from time to time from employers who are usually not sure what is permissible & what is not.

So, let’s look at the basics first.

  1. There is generally no obligation to provide a reference. The exceptions we know of are the financial services and the care sector.
  2. If you do provide a reference, it should be honest, both for the potential employer who receives it and for the (presumably ex) employee who is its subject.
  3. It should also be factual.

If you have fairly dismissed an employee, whatever the reason, you should not tell a potential employer that he/she was wonderful because that would be both dishonest & misleading. Equally, if an employee resigns in the course of a disciplinary process, you should say so – it is honest and factual.
Remember that opinions are harder to justify than facts

Avoid giving negative comments in a reference if you could not justify them in a court or tribunal. This is why so many employers will only give references which are purely factual, i.e. X worked between these dates, job title, attendance record.

A common question asked in reference requests is “would you employ Tom/Dick/Harry again – if not, why not. An equally popular response is to answer “No, against company policy”.

Sometimes employers will feel particular sympathy for an employee they have dismissed and provide a really positive reference in order to help them obtain another job as quickly as possible. They are then surprised when/if that same reference is used against then at an unfair dismissal hearing. Be equally cautious if you are asked to give a reference over the phone – do you really know that the person you are speaking with is who they say they are ??

Sometimes you might be tempted to give a reference which seems like a glowing tribute, but really hides a second meaning. Here are a few of our favourites :-

  • If you get him to work for you, you will be particularly fortunate – real meaning is he’s lazy
  • Every hour with him was a happy hour – real meaning, has a drink problem
  • I urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment – real meaning, we’re really glad he has gone
  • His true ability was deceiving – real meaning, a compulsive liar
  • There is nothing we could teach him – real meaning, very stupid
  • Works well under constant supervision real meaning, but it is essential

If you have any of your own favourites, please do share them with us