Getting a job reference
You'll usually need a reference from your old employer when you're looking for a new job.
If your employer gives you a reference, they can make it as short as they like. A lot of references only say what your job title was and when you worked there.
The reference has to be accurate. Your employer 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.
If you’ve been dismissed
Your employer can include the facts - for example if you’ve been dismissed, or they were thinking of dismissing you.
Think about how you’ll explain what happened to a new employer. It’s best to focus on the facts rather than how you feel - this will make it easier to show you acted reasonably.
If you’re being investigated or disciplined
Your employer can say if you’re being investigated or disciplined. They can’t say you definitely did it if the process is still going on.
It’s usually better to stay in your job until the process is finished, even if you’re dismissed. If you’re found innocent, your employer shouldn’t mention the process in the reference. If you’re disciplined or dismissed, the new employer can see you took part in the process. You can find out what to do in a disciplinary process.
Think about how you’ll explain what happened if you’re disciplined. It’s best to focus on the facts rather than how you feel - this will make it easier to show you acted reasonably.
There are some situations where resigning and leaving immediately will clearly be the best option, because staying in your job would harm your health. For example, if you don’t feel safe at work or your colleagues are repeatedly bullying you. Find out what to think about before you resign.
If you have a criminal conviction
Your employer can’t mention any spent convictions you have. They should only mention an unspent conviction if it’s relevant to the job - for example if you were convicted for stealing from work.
Your conviction’s unspent for a certain amount of time after it ends. For example, if you pay a fine your conviction is usually unspent for 5 years. After that, it’s spent.
It takes longer for some convictions to become spent than others. Check if your conviction is spent on the Scottish Government website.
Getting a job without a reference from your employer
If you think your employer will give you a bad reference or won’t give you one at all, you could ask someone else to give you a reference instead.
Look for jobs that don’t need a reference from your most recent manager. Some jobs accept references from other people you’ve worked with - like a different manager or someone you’ve worked for before.
Try to choose someone you’ve worked with recently. It also helps if they have a senior position in the company. Check with them first to make sure they’ll give you a good reference.
The new employer might ask why you’re not giving your old employer’s details. Think about how you’ll explain this to them.
You’ll need to give a reference from your old employer if a job application asks for it - but you might be able to give a reference from the other person as well.
Getting a reference from your old employer
Your employer doesn't usually have to give you a reference unless:
- your contract says they will
- you have written proof they’ve agreed to give you a reference - like an email
Some regulators also say employers have to give references, for example the Financial Conduct Authority.
If your old employer doesn’t want to give you a reference, you could ask them just to give a short one - known as a ‘basic reference’. For example, they could confirm when you worked for them and what your job title was. A lot of employers only give basic references, so your new employer won’t think it’s unusual.
You might be able to speak to someone else if you don’t want to contact your manager directly - for example an HR department or another manager.
If you think you've had a bad reference
If you think your old employer’s given you a bad reference, you could ask the new employer to show you a copy of it. You can check what your old employer has said and ask them to change it if it’s not true.
It can take more than a month to get a copy of the reference, so it’s best to apply for other jobs at the same time.
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.
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’.
If the new employer won’t give you a copy
You can make a formal request to see the reference if the new employer has kept it.
This is called making a 'subject access request' or 'SAR', and the law says the company has to reply within 40 days. You might have to pay for the copy - it can cost up to £10.
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.
Asking your old employer to give a good reference next time
Think about if you can ask your old employer to give a better reference in future. You might be able to speak to someone else if you don’t want to contact your manager directly - for example an HR department or another manager.
Explain what the problem is and how you’d like them to help. 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:
- tell your old employer 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
Taking action against your previous employer
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 take a long time, and you might not win your case. For many people, it’s quicker to look for another job or ask someone else to give a reference instead.
Your nearest Citizens Advice can help you decide if it’s worth taking your employer to court.