Law guide: Workplace

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References and job offers

References and job offers


References are used by employers to find out if you're suitable for a job and are a reliable employee. Before you accept a job offer make sure you know your rights and what a prospective employer expects of you.


Does your employer have to give you a reference?

If you want to leave your job you'll probably want a reference. It's good practice for your employer to give one, but they don't have to if your contract doesn't say they have to, except in some regulated industries like financial services.

What information will be in the reference?

References must be accurate and shouldn't be misleading. This means that if, for example, you were disciplined when you worked for the employer who's giving you a reference, this may form part of the reference. However, unless you agree, information like your medical record or any spent criminal convictions shouldn't normally be included (as it will not be relevant).

If a reference you've been given isn't accurate or is deliberately misleading it may amount to defamation, in which case, you could claim for libel. You will need to speak to a lawyer about how to do this. If you're still employed, it may amount to constructive dismissal.

An employer may choose to give a reference that just confirms your dates of employment. There is nothing unlawful in this, unless your employer normally gives full references and is discriminating against you.

If your employer refuses to give you a reference

If you complained about discriminatory behaviour by your employer, and they won't give you a reference as a result, you may be able to claim for continued discrimination (victimisation).

If you need a reference while you're still employed

If you feel that a prospective employer asking your current employer for a reference would cause a problem, say so at your interview. Your prospective employer may be prepared to wait until you've told your current employer that you're leaving. You have no special protection under the law, but if you're dismissed because your employer is asked to provide a reference, this could amount to unfair dismissal.

Asking for a copy of your reference once you start your new job

Once you start working for a new employer, you can ask them for a copy of any reference they've been given from your previous employers. They should supply it to you under data protection law.

Job offers

Conditional offer

If you're offered a job, you may be sent a conditional offer letter, which should state:

  • The job title and a brief job description
  • The location
  • Any conditions you need to meet (for example, satisfactory references and health record)
  • The terms (for example, pay, hours, holiday entitlement)
  • The starting date and any induction period
  • What you have to do next and by when

Unconditional offer

If you meet the conditions set out in the offer letter, you should receive an unconditional offer once your prospective employer knows this. If you can, wait until you receive the unconditional offer before handing in your notice.

Accepting an unconditional offer

Once you've accepted an unconditional offer, a contract of employment exists between you and your new employer.

If you don't get the job

If a job application fails, it's a good idea to find out why. However, the employer doesn't have to give you any feedback.

What happens if an employer withdraws a job offer?

If the offer's withdrawn before you have a chance to accept, or because you haven't met the conditions (for example, providing a 'satisfactory' reference), you can't take any action, unless it has been withdrawn for reasons of unlawful discrimination.

However, once you've accepted an unconditional offer, and the prospective employer withdraws it, you can claim for compensation for breach of contract.

Changing your mind once you've accepted an offer

If you have second thoughts about a job you've just accepted, ask the employer to agree to let you go. Give notice as soon as you can - preferably before you start.

Your new employer won't be happy if this happens, and there's a possibility they may try to sue you for breach of contract if you don't give at least the amount of notice on your contract or offer letter.

What to do next

If you're unhappy with an employer before or after accepting a job offer, you should first talk to them informally to find out if there's a way of sorting out the problem.

If you want to complain about discrimination you can go to an employment tribunal (or industrial tribunal in Northern Ireland). If your contract has been broken you can claim in the ordinary courts.

Where to get help

For England, Wales and Scotland, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on employment rights issues.

For Northern Ireland, the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.

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