References are usually sought from current and former employers.
Most employers will ask for references to be submitted in writing, either as an open unstructured letter or in a standard form.
All data given in a reference should generally be based on fact or capable of independent verification. Referees should be very cautious about giving any subjective opinion (which cannot be substantiated with factual evidence) about an individual's performance, conduct or suitability.
In law, there is nothing to prevent a prospective employer asking if you have ever been subject to disciplinary action or an investigation. If you would like guidance on how to approach this issue with potential employers, contact us.
You may also wish to look at the ACAS guidance Providing a job reference.
In general, prospective employers are prohibited from asking questions about your health or disability prior to offering you a job. See our guidance on recruitment, interviews and job offers for information on this.
There is no strict legal obligation on your employer to provide references for you as a present or past employee, unless this is specified in your contract. There are exceptions to this general rule in certain regulated sectors, such as the finance industry.
Nevertheless, such a term could be implied into a contract if:
- there is a contract of employment or services
- the work under the contract is of a type where it is normal to require a reference from a previous employer
- the employee cannot be expected to find work of that type unless his or her employer provides a full and frank reference to a prospective employer.
Ultimately, the RCN believes that asking for a reference from a present or former employer is a reasonable request. Failure to provide a reference could mean that you cannot obtain a future position in the health care sector.
If you are having trouble getting a reference, ask if they will supply a ‘basic reference’ or ask the prospective employer if you can get a reference from someone else, for example an ex-manager or ex-colleague.
If you are unable to get a job because you cannot obtain a reference, contact us for advice. You can also see our guidance on recruitment, interviews and job offers which includes information on withdrawal of a job offer.
Also consider whether you have been refused a reference because of a ‘protected characteristic’. If so, this may amount to discrimination. Read more about discrimination in our advice guide and below.
A reference should not be misleading, inaccurate or discriminatory. If you have been told by the person hiring you that there is a problem with the reference, it may help to ask what this is and if there are ways to rectify this. You could ask if you could get further references or address their concerns. For example, you could give evidence to prove a reference was misleading.
If you want to see a copy of your reference, see our advice below as this may not always be an option.
You may be able to resolve any issues by talking to the people involved but if you are not, you might wish to consider if any of the below may apply. You can also see our advice on withdrawal of a job offer if the reference has led to this.
If a reference contains a false or unsubstantiated statement that damages your reputation, then in theory you may be able to take legal action in defamation. However, the chances of a successful claim are remote. The RCN will not support a defamation case.
If a reference has been given in confidence, neither the giving or receiving organisation are obliged to disclose it. Read more on the Information Commissioner's Office website.
If you believe you have been given a reference that is not factual, you can still try to obtain a copy.
- contact the prospective employer and ask for the copy. If they refuse,
- contact the author of the reference.
If you are refused a copy of the reference from both parties or if you receive a copy of the reference and it is not factual, contact us for further advice and support.
If you have been asked to provide a reference for someone you need to clarify whether you are being asked to provide an employment or character reference. Your employer may have strict policies in place regarding who can provide employment references and failure to follow these policies could result in disciplinary action being taken against you.
In almost all cases our members experience no problems when giving character references. Character references are an important way for new employers or investigating committees to gather evidence about somebody's character.
In law, no one can be compelled to supply a character reference. However, registered nurses, midwives and nursing associates must follow the NMC Code, which requires registrants to cooperate with all investigations and audits.
If you do decide to provide a character reference you should be open and honest. In certain circumstances, people who give dishonest references can be sued for negligence. Any dishonest reference you give could also potentially lead to disciplinary action from your employer and, if you are an NMC registrant, you may be reported to the NMC for investigation.
Get answers to your contract questions including notice queries and whether your employer can change your contract.
See our A-Z of advice. These guides will help you answer many of your questions about work.
Page last updated - 19/09/2023