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What are the risks to be aware of when responding to a reference request?

Providing a reference has become a bit of a risky business.

Most references are provided in good faith, but sometimes it has been known for an employer to provide a glowing, exaggerated or misleading reference to help a friend, ex-colleague or even to encourage a difficult employee to leave.

If you provide a glowing reference in the knowledge that the information is exaggerated or not true, you may be sued for negligence and be liable for all the new employer’s recruitment, training, settlement and legal costs. Equally, if you refuse to provide a reference or provide information that is inaccurate or misleading this could result in a claim by ex-employee for being discriminatory, vindictive or a breach of trust and confidence.

So how can you respond to a reference request?  It is important when providing a reference to ensure that the information given is fair and accurate; use objective factual information, nothing subjective. Always ensure that any information is non discriminatory and that it does not victimise the ex-employee. Keep it simple and stick to verifiable facts such as: start date; positions held; competence in the job (if this can be substantiated by performance appraisals); time-keeping and job end date. Make sure that subjective comments or opinions on the person’s performance or capability are avoided and that the information provided is no more than required.

Be careful of a request for a reference by telephone, as verbal information given can be as incriminating as written communication. Always state over the phone that the request needs to be in writing and do not give a verbal reference, because it is often much easier to let something slip over the phone that could land you in trouble!

You should also remember that unless you are given specific written authorisation from the individual concerned you must not give out sensitive information such as medical records. So while employers can provide a record of the number of an employee’s absences in a reference, they should not give the sickness reasons for those absences.

If you would like clarity on providing references or any other HR management issue please contact the ProAktive HR team on 01302 341344.

By Louise Addison Cert Mgmt (Open) – Employment Adviser

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