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What can I do with an unfair reference?

12/06/2013Tags: job after uni, cv, cover letter, advice, applications, references
What can I do with an unfair reference?, image by E Magic
Image by E Magic

The reference remains the vaguest aspect of the recruitment process. An employer is not legally obliged to give a reference, yet it is more or less universally accepted that the employee will receive one on leaving the organisation. By law, any reference that is awarded must be given due consideration and all statement must be accurate. Fortunately for the employee, instances of bad references are fairly rare.

But rather than the employee worrying over the former employer’s comments, it is increasingly the latter that has cause for concern. Companies are in fact stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to passing judgement on their employees. If the reference is so negative that it prevents the employee from losing potential job offers, they could end up defending their statement in court and, win or lose, ‘the corporation vs the (unemployed) individual’ is bound to create bad press.On the other hand, if the employee has been involved in any kind of malpractice, which is then repeated at the new company, the new employer will want to know why this information was omitted from the reference. Again, any dispute may be settled in a courtroom.

The result of such pressures is that modern references tend to remain extremely dry and factual. Indeed, companies are increasingly resigned to merely confirming than that the CV is reasonably justified when they request references. A typical written copy will include the job title, main duties and number of absent days – in other words, pure fact.

This clearly limits the chances of receiving negative remarks in your reference (unless you have been dishonest in your application) and instances of employers seizing upon an opportunity for retribution are rare. Nonetheless, the situation does occur and can cause serious concern for the employee.

Although, under a special exemption from the Data Protection Act, the employee has no right to obtain a copy from the organisation that gave it, the recipient is obliged to provide a copy if asked. If you believe you have received an unfair reference, you can then pursue legal action, claiming for damages but remember you will have to prove negligence and inaccuracy. In defence the employer can reasonably claim to believing the reference to be correct (providing it contains no malice) even if it turns out to be false.

The same applies to internal references in such instances where application is made for a position within the same organisation.

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