I suspect my last employer has given me a bad reference. How can I find out what is in it?

Often the first hurdle when a poor reference is suspected is to get hold of a copy. A reference includes 'personal data', and under the Data Protection Act 1998, you have a legal right to a copy of information about you that is covered by the Act. However, confusingly, the Act takes a different approach to references that have been given by your employer and references that have been received by a prospective employer.

There is no obligation on the provider of a confidential reference (usually your ex-employer) to give you a copy of the reference. This is because of a specific exemption in the Data Protection Act. However, the Information Commissioner's Office says that a reasonable employer is likely to hand it over voluntarily, especially if it is largely factual.

The position is different with references received by a prospective employer from someone else (typically your ex-employer). This means that where you have been turned down for work, you may be able to ask the organisation that rejected your application for a copy of any reference supplied to them. Your may be met with the response that handing over the reference would breach a genuine duty of confidentiality owed to someone else – for example a manager named in the reference.

The content of the reference would have to be genuinely confidential for this to apply, in which case, the organisation that was sent the reference would have to ask the referee for their consent before handing it over to you. It may not be confidential if, for example, you already knew the name of the person who gave the negative reference. Even if it is confidential, it may still be possible to supply the reference with the manager’s name and other confidential details deleted, or a summary of what it says.

The Information Commissioner says it is good practice to hand a reference over, or at least a substantial part of it, especially if the reference has had a negative impact on the person concerned, for example stopping them taking up a provisional job offer.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.