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Can my employer refuse to show me a reference they have given about me?
A reference contains "personal data" about you. Under the Data Protection Act 1998, individuals have a legal right to a copy of personal information held by them that is covered by the Act. However, confusingly, the Act contains an exemption for references given by your employer. There is no legal obligation on the provider of a confidential employment reference to give a copy to the person the reference is about. However, the Information Commissioner says that reasonable employers may choose to supply the reference, especially if it is largely factual.
Although you may not be able to get your reference from your existing (or ex) employer, you may be able to get hold of a copy from the recipient of the reference. Here, there is no exemption. Instead, normal data protection rules apply. The law obliges the reference recipient to give you access to personal information about you (such as a reference about you). However, there is a potential exemption if the reference is genuinely confidential, in which case, the recipient may need to ask the referee’s consent before handing it over.
The Information Commissioner says that recommended good practice is to “provide the information in the reference, or at least a substantial part of it, to the person it is about, if they ask for it. Even if the author of the reference refuses consent, this will not necessarily justify withholding the information, especially if it has a negative impact on the individual, such as stopping them taking up a provisional job”. Sometimes, the reference can be handed over with names blanked out if necessary, or just a summary of the content can be provided, rather than the full reference.