Guide to requesting references

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Obtaining references from a successful job applicant's prior employers can be incredibly beneficial. This is because facts about a job applicant's previous experience and performance are typically a good predictor of his or her future performance in a comparable post. 

What is this guide for?

The purpose of this Guide to requesting references is to provide you with a flexible and customisable document to serve as a robust and effective starting point for you.

By using our Guide to requesting references, you can streamline your process, maintain consistency and accuracy, and save time, and it can be easily adapted to fit your specific scenario.


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1369 words, 4 pages A4
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Date last reviewed
1 June 2024
guide to requesting references

Guide to requesting references

It is perfectly appropriate for an employer to want to ensure that the information provided as part of a job application is correct and comprehensive. Obtaining references from past employers will be a part of that procedure.

It is common practice for businesses to request two written references for each new employee they employ and to condition job offers on such references being satisfactory to the organisation.

Who should references be obtained for, and when?

While some companies choose to obtain references on all short-listed job applicants, this is time intensive and, in some cases, unnecessary. It is regarded best practice to seek references solely for those persons to whom the employer has chosen to provide an offer of employment.

This can be done either before or after the job offer is made, as the offer can be conditional on obtaining sufficient references. If the references turn out to be unacceptable in the eyes of the employer, the offer might be withdrawn without the employer being in violation of contract.

Ideally, company application forms should include a statement advising potential job candidates of any checks that the organisation performs to verify the information that applicants submit.

Guidelines for requesting and interpreting references

  1. Before doing any reference checks, obtain the individual's written permission.
  2. Take measures to gain clarity on any confusing or otherwise unclear material supplied in a reference.
  3. Allow job seekers the opportunity to explain any discrepancies between the information they submitted and the information disclosed in a reference.
  4. Recognise that the personal thoughts and perspectives of the person who created the reference can influence its substance.
  5. Make job offers contingent on excellent references from previous employers.
  6. Don't ask for references on all job candidates; instead, ask for those on people to whom the company has offered or plans to make an offer of employment.
  7. Employers for whom the job candidate worked in the distant past should not be contacted for references since they are unlikely to be relevant.
  8. Use the post and designate the envelope "confidential" instead of emailing references.
  9. Don't just assume that all of the information in job references is correct.
  10. When deciding whether or not to hire a certain job candidate, don't depend solely on recommendations.

Gaining consent

When interviewing job candidates, line managers should advise them that if a job offer is made, they will need written references, often from recent prior employers. They should also make it clear that any job offer is contingent on those references being satisfactory to the organisation. However, no work reference should be obtained without the full agreement of the potential employee.

The legal position on obtaining references

Because a reference contains personal information, it is subject to the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation and the Equality Act. Employers must take care not to undermine an individual's rights under the Act while seeking information about them.

Guidelines in Data Protection

The Employment Practices Data Protection Code provides guidance on complying with data protection rules in the context of recruitment.

The code makes certain recommendations regarding the verification of information contained in job applications and employment references, taking into account the possibility that job applicants may not always give complete or accurate answers to the questions that they are asked on the application form or at interview.

The recommendations in the code in respect of references include the following:

  1. Any verification procedure that employers want to use should be transparent.
  2. Job candidates should be notified about what information will be verified, what sources of information will be used, and how any checks will be conducted.
  3. Employers should not presume that information gathered about a job candidate from a third party that differs from the applicant's information is correct.
  4. Employers should not request information about job candidates' personal life unless it is required for the specific recruitment activity.

Equality Act

Under the Equality Act, employers are prohibited from asking questions about the health of a candidate before offering him or her a job (except in limited circumstances). Therefore, if a line manager wants to ask about the health of a candidate, he or she should do so only after having made the candidate a job offer.

Further, asking a candidate's former employer about the candidate's health, including sickness absence, could amount to disability discrimination if the employee has taken a lot Page | 12 of sickness absence as a result of a disability and the line manager relies on the information not to offer the candidate a job. It is also unlikely that information about sickness absence will help to inform the manager about whether or not the candidate will perform well in the role.

Therefore, it is safest for the line manager not to ask a referee about a candidate's health or sickness absence.

Unsatisfactory references

Generally, if a reference on a potential recruit appears unsatisfactory in some way, the line manager should adopt the following principles.

If the reference contains factual information that is adverse to the potential recruit, the manager should consider whether or not this information is relevant, and if so whether it is sufficient to render the individual unsuitable for the employment in question. The manager should bear in mind that the fact that someone had a problem in his or her previous employment does not necessarily mean that he or she will be unsuitable for a new or different post.

The manager reviewing the reference should consider if the job duties and responsibilities of the potential recruit's previous post are sufficiently similar to those of the post on offer, and if not, refrain from automatically judging the individual in a negative light on account of adverse comments in the reference.

If a reference contains negative or adverse comments about a prospective recruit that are based on opinion rather than fact, the line manager should not automatically assume that this information is accurate. The information may have been given as a result of bias or personal dislike, or may be based on a misunderstanding or something outside the individual's control.

If a reference is ambiguous or otherwise unclear, the manager should not draw negative conclusions about the job applicant. Instead he or she should take steps to check what the referee meant, perhaps by telephoning to ask for clarification.

Where the references obtained do not provide sufficient or satisfactory information, the line manager should consider seeking further information, for example by requesting additional references from alternative sources. The individual's consent to do this will be necessary.


According to the Employment Practices Data Protection Code, if any pre-employment checks on a job application reveal anomalies or discrepancies, the employer should not automatically presume that the applicant provided false or intentionally misleading information.

Wherever appropriate, the hirring line manager should get further information on the job candidate. The manager should also allow the applicant to explain any differences between the information he or she provided and the information given in the reference.

The line manager might resolve this dilemma by calling the candidate and inviting him or her to a second interview to discuss the relevant problems. However, the line manager must carefully consider how to phrase queries pertinent to the area of the disagreement without exposing the actual content or source of the reference.

If a reference discrepancy is a basic and easy difference of fact, such as dates of employment with a former company, the line manager will usually be able to present the discrepancy directly to the job candidate and provide him or her the opportunity to clarify it.

Many job candidates make legitimate errors in their employment dates. It's also conceivable that the individual supplying the reference made a mistake when putting it together. Because this information is previously known to the individual (even if memory has failed him or her), there is nothing secret or disputed about it, and there is no reason not to divulge it.

Line managers should be open-minded when examining references and should not be too quick to cast judgement on a job candidate who has supplied bad information. They should look into the matter further and make an informed judgment about what the truth is and how much it matters.

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