Answered by Sara Williams, CEO, Vitesse Media
The issue of problems with job references is becoming increasingly prevalent. Over the years most people will have come across references with very ambiguous wording and meaning such as, “I am sure that a new employer will find him as useful as we did” i.e. useless. However, a number of cases over the years, relating to references, have brought us to the situation where, if, an employer gives a reference it must be not only accurate but must be accurate in the sum of the parts.
Therefore, where an employer thinks of leaving out certain issues, and decides to only stipulate positive remarks such as the employee was popular with staff and customers alike. It might appear at first glance to be fine, however, its silence on the issue as to how he happened to leave, in this case, dismissed for theft would not be accurate in the sum of the parts. A future employer employing him and then suffering loss as a result for theft could be in a position to sue you for damages.
There is actually no requirement that an employer must, except in certain industries, provide a reference. Recently a case was featured in the press where a woman who was refused a reference was awarded £200,000 by a Tribunal. This raised a few eyebrows! However, the woman had succeeded in a Tribunal claim for discrimination harassment and the employer, having lost the Tribunal inappropriately answered a number of enquiries in such a manner that the Tribunal, at the woman’s request, decided that it amounted to on-going discrimination and awarded £200,000 on top of the original award of some £7,000.
As a result of this case it does not mean an employer now has to provide a reference when asked – it simply means that harassment should not continue into the provision of the wording of a reference. The more common practice these days is to simply provide a statement of employment saying “the person was employed by us for a given time frame and perhaps a description of the job title or a description of duties”.
These do not comment with regard to competency or suitability for any future role. Finally, for independent financial advisers, people working in the finance industry, the FSA dictates certain requirements relating to references and standards, so, clearly the information has to be provided in compliance with those rules.
The one thing that you do not clarify in your question is whether the written warning on the file is current or has lapsed or will lapse shortly, as it would be unfair to report on a warning that has lapsed and where there has been no reoccurrence. There are also strict rules for the taking up of references for potential employees who will work with children or vulnerable adults. Those rules must be followed.
Sara Williams is CEO of AIM-listed Vitesse Media, the publishing company she started in 1997. A former investment analyst with Kleinwort Benson, Sara is the author of The FT Guide to Business Start-up (over one million copies sold). She has written for several national newspapers and appears regularly in broadcasts on TV and radio.