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I am leaving my job but my employer refuses to give me a satisfactory reference. What should I do?
With a few narrow exceptions (in particular, financial services) an employer is not legally obliged to provide a reference.
Your employer must not victimise you by refusing to give you a satisfactory reference, for example, because you have alleged discrimination or engaged in whistleblowing. This would be against the law. You can find out more about what amounts to victimisation.
Where a reference is given, the employer has an implied duty of care to both the former employee and the prospective employer to take reasonable care that the reference is true, accurate and fair. You may be able to bring a civil case for negligence if you suffer damage as a result of an inaccurate reference (e.g. an unjustified reference causes a job offer to be withdrawn).
However, where a reference is provided, your employer also has a duty of care to provide relevant and accurate information to the prospective employer, even if the information is unfavourable to you.
In practice, many employers now only offer simple references (e.g. "[Name] worked as a [job title] for [Name of employer] between [date] and [date]"). This used to be considered tantamount to a bad reference, but is now widely accepted – although less so in the public sector where ex-employers are often asked to complete a form with a series of questions about your employment.