Deliberately Bland Reference To Award-Winning Employee
May 3, 2011 3:50 PM   Subscribe

UK employment law question: if an employer gives deliberately poor reference to employee they demonstrably want to keep, what recourse is there?

My girlfriend has been working for a well-known UK high-street retail chain for the last six months.

She was hired as a shop assistant at the level just below that of manager - this means in practice that she is required to carry out managerial duties - supervising other staff, opening and closing floors, etc - as and when required without being paid a manager's salary. She has also in that time received two internal awards for outstanding customer service. A senior manager has told her verbally words to the effect that they do not know what they would do without her and that they hope she doesn't leave.

She was just turned down for another job elsewhere on the grounds, she was told, that the reference provided by her current employer was so bland as to be no recommendation at all.

What legal recourse, if any, does she have?

If none, why don't all UK companies do this as policy - flag employees that they would not wish to see leave and make sure that they are always given the blandest, most non-committal possible reference, in order to minimise employee churn in cases such as this, where the offer of a new job turns on the quality of the reference.
posted by motty to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have a former (UK) employer that does this. I assume part of the reason is that the less they say, the less that can go wrong for them from a legal point of view (which is potentially quite a lot when we're talking about current employees). But I'm sure that the main reason they do it because it's less work.

There is no legal obligation to give references at all, so unless what they write is libelous, I would be staggered if there is any recourse.
posted by caek at 4:03 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Bland" does not sound likes it amounts to a negligent or malicious mis-statement, which would be the territory where a potential legal claim starts (I would expect - IANAL). The employer also owes a duty of care to the new prospective employer, as well as to the employee, so that a good reference which doesn't work out could have legal repercussions. The legally safest course when giving a reference is to be bland, or even give no reference at all. I guess the workaround for new employers who don't understand why "factual references" may be the norm, is just to get outstanding personal references from other former supervisors, etc?
posted by wilko at 4:20 PM on May 3, 2011

Those two internal awards for customer service --- did she get any kind of certificates? If yes, perhaps she could give photocopies of them to prospective employers, in lieu of references.
posted by easily confused at 4:20 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Bland" is very different than "bad." Total guess: no recourse.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:05 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of employers, including my current one, will only give a reference in the form "Person X worked for us from Date A to Date B and occupied the following positions". For legal and other reasons, as people have said already.

If you want an actual reference which will be any good, you go to someone who worked with you in that organisation and they give you a personal reference. Their reference does not represent the organisation.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:56 PM on May 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

What your girlfriend needs to do is to add photocopies of her awards to her applications; and note on her applications that as a matter of policy, her place of work does not supply substantive references. Ideally, find a former manager or even co-worker who is no longer working there, who will supply a personal reference.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:06 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's very common policy for employers to simply give 'XXX worked for us from to '. One reason for this is to avoid liability, i.e. stick to the facts (possibly including the reason for leaving, such as resignation). Anything else is somebody's subjective opinion.

To be honest if the new employer expects anything more, they aren't being realistic; that's not how things work in a lot of very large employers.

Seconding that she should add photocopies of her awards to her applications, and note about her current employer's reference policy.

posted by plep at 9:33 AM on May 4, 2011

Definitely get a couple of personal references from either a manager or senior co-worker. Copies of payslips will prove that she worked at the company between those dates if required.
If she is going through an agency, I would push back and say that the bland reference is due to company policy, but here are some personal references, awards etc.
posted by plep at 9:42 AM on May 4, 2011

I work for a major high street retailer, and all we provide is the dates of employment and job title. The reason we give this 'bland' reference is a matter of efficiency and practicality; for efficiency, with thousands of management and tens of thousands of sales assistants, it would be impossible to give a more 'personal' reference for everybody.

For practicality, since we cannot guarantee the former employee's line manager will be able to give the reference and include the details of their employment with us, it is much better to standardise the references through 'blandness'.
posted by ellieBOA at 11:31 AM on May 4, 2011

If she is going through an agency, I would push back and say that the bland reference is due to company policy, but here are some personal references, awards etc.

This is what we recommend when former employees or their new employers query our policy.
posted by ellieBOA at 11:32 AM on May 4, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the useful and thoughtful answers, folks.
posted by motty at 11:27 AM on May 8, 2011

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