Q: I left my old job in a travel agency after a disagreement with my boss. I have since accepted a new job on more money but I need a reference and am worried that my old employer might either give me a bad reference or refuse to provide one at all. What are my rights?
A: An employer has no general duty to give a reference for any ex-employee unless there is a contractual obligation to do so. A contractual obligation could either be “express” (i.e. set out in writing or agreed verbally) or “implied” by their conduct (i.e. if your employer has always given references to departing staff). Failure to give a reference could potentially give rise to a claim in breach of contract.
Further, if the decision to refuse to give a reference is related to a protected characteristic as set out in the Equality Act 2010, i.e. gender, age, race, religious belief etc, then there could also be a claim for discrimination.
If an employer does give a reference they are obliged to ensure that it is fair, true and accurate in all regards. If the reference breaches these requirements, the employer could face a claim in negligent misstatement. There is nothing however to stop an employer giving a bad reference if it can be justified and supported by factual evidence.
Given the potential risks of giving a detailed reference many employers choose to provide brief factual references simply confirming dates of employment, job title and reason for leaving. There is generally nothing wrong in principle with this and if you have left on bad terms this may in fact be preferable.
If your former employer refuses to provide a reference or provides a reference that is untrue or misleading you should seek legal advice regarding the potential action that can be taken.