Creating a fairer Britain
Sometimes your former employer’s responsibilities continue after you have stopped working for them and they must still not discriminate unlawfully against you.
This section looks at your rights after you have stopped working for an employer, and in particular how this applies to references.
Apart from when you ask a former employer for a reference, other situations where you might have a continuing relationship with them include if you receive any continuing benefits. These must not be withheld from you if this would be unlawful discrimination.
If you believe that you are being discriminated against after you have stopped working for an employer, you can take the same steps to have things put right as if you were still employed.
You can contact your former employer and ask them to put the situation right. If it cannot be sorted out informally, then you can ask your former employer to deal with your complaint using their usual grievance procedure.
You can also take a case to an Employment Tribunal.
If you are a disabled person, the duty to make reasonable adjustments also continues after you have stopped working for that employer.
Former workers are sent an annual newsletter. A reasonable adjustment might be for it to be made available in a format that makes it accessible to a former worker who has a visual impairment.
The duty exists only if you were a disabled person when you worked for your former employer.
What is reasonable in this situation may be different from what would be reasonable for someone who is still working.
You can read more about reasonable adjustments to remove barriers for disabled people, including how to work out what is reasonable.
Giving references more generally
This guide only tells you about equality law. There are other laws which your employer must follow to make sure a reference does not break other laws, for example, laws relating to negligence or defamation. You can find out more about these from Acas, whose contact details are found within the Further sources of information section.
The most likely area where you will have contact with someone you used to work for is if you (or your prospective new employer) ask them to give you a reference.
An employer must not:
because of a protected characteristic or if refusing to give a reference would count as victimisation.
A worker’s former employer refuses to give them a reference because they supported someone else’s claim for sexual harassment. This would almost certainly be victimisation.
It does not matter how long ago you worked for the employer, as long as you can show that any unlawful discrimination arises out of and is closely connected to the previous employment relationship.
If you are still working for the employer when you ask for a reference in order to change jobs, this is still part of your employment, and you must not be unlawfully discriminated against, just as in every other work situation.
In general, there is no legal requirement for an employer to provide you with a reference, provided their policy on providing references (or not providing them) is applied without unlawfully discriminating against anyone. However, if your employment contract says that references will be provided then they must be.
In sectors where workers are subject to special rules (such as finance) and cannot get a job without a reference, the courts have said that there is an implied term in the contract that employers will provide one.
If an employer does give references, they must not include comments about the person’s characteristic (or in the case of disability, comments about something connected with the person’s disability) that might be unlawfully discriminatory.
The same rules apply to telephone and other verbal references.
If, regardless of someone’s protected characteristics, the reference would have been bad, then an employer is of course entitled to do this.
However, if an employer has given someone an undeserved bad reference in circumstances which make this unlawful discrimination, they are entitled to ask the employer to change what they have said. If they do not do this, the worker may be able to bring an Employment Tribunal case for unlawful discrimination.
You may be able to get hold of a copy of your employer's reference even if the reference was supplied ‘in confidence’: