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How to request a reference from a former employer

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How to request a reference from a former employer
October 02, 2019 Anniversary Wishes No comments

Employers can read eight useful points on dealing with reference requests for employees or ex-employees.

What happens is that a hiring manager from Company A will not call the HR department of Company B, but instead will call around to get a hold of your former manager, or a lower level supervisor. Frequently, line managers are annoyed by the HR department always telling them what they can and can't do, and who they can and can't talk to. They feel put-upon by Human Resources, and they may also feel jilted by the fact that you left, or they are still angry about your perceived short comings when you were working for them.

As a result, a lower level manager often decides on their own to tell the caller (the hiring manager from Company A) what a pain in the neck you were (not that you really were, but that's what the manager might wrongly believe). The larger the company, the easier it is to find someone, somewhere, who is willing to talk about you. In this way, a bully boss or abusive manager can continue to come after you even after you have left the company.

Also, employment relationships are the closest thing we have to family relationships. Companies often proudly say “We're like family here.” And just like a divorce, the breakup of a working relationship can cause feelings of resentment, betrayal, anger, and a desire for revenge. A former manager will occasionally act on these feelings by sticking it to you by giving a very bad reference to a company where you applied, even though you don't deserve it.

Turns out, there's a right way to ask someone to be a job reference for you--and Ideally, you want your new boss to worry that your former supervisors might.

Get your references together for your job search

how to request a reference from a former employer

Sabrina writes:
Recently I reviewed one of your articles online and would like to ask how to request/obtain a reference from a past and current supervisor.


LiveCareer responds:

Background checks are highly common when you're in the final stages of being offered a job, which means references have increased in their importance. Given their importance, job seekers should invest a little time in selecting the best references. It's best to have a few references lined up prior to a job search. You must get permission from someone before listing them as a reference.

Who can be a reference?

A reference can be anyone who has knowledge of your work skills, abilities and accomplishments. Typically, at least one of your references is a former direct supervisor, but you can also use co-workers, associates and supervisors in other departments who know your work. You may also choose to list an educational (mentor) or personal (character) reference.

College students and recent grads have a little more flexibility, but ideally they should have several references from internships or volunteer work, in addition to professors and personal references. Avoid listing family members; clergy or friends are okay for personal references. Former coaches, customers and business acquaintances are also acceptable. Again, the key is choosing people who know your strengths and abilities — and who will say positive things about you.

How to make the request

The key to securing a reference is having a good relationship with the person -- yet another reason why it is important to stay in touch with those in your professional network. With your former supervisor, simply write a short email updating him/her on your career path and new job search, and ask if s/he would be willing to be a reference for you. Include your current resume and highlight some recent accomplishments.

Also, ask your former supervisor if they'd be willing to talk about particular strengths of yours. If you're in the final stages of being offered a job, inquire as to whether or not your supervisor would be willing to talk about the strengths of yours that most closely align with the job. Share the job advertisement with him/her. Most of the time when someone makes a reference request, the reference asks if there's anything in particular they should focus on when singing your praises. Don't be afraid to ask your reference to talk about particular strengths of yours! References typically appreciate direction on what to talk about when speaking with a recruiter or hiring manager.

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Employment Law: Asking for a Reference

how to request a reference from a former employer

Aim of this information

This information aims to set out what legal obligations a previous employer has when providing you with a reference, what employers are most likely to mention in a reference and whether they are entitled to disclose details of any convictions (unspent or spent) which they may be aware of. It also looks at alternative referees if you are unable to get a reference from a previous employer.

It’s part of our information on looking for (and keeping) employment and volunteering.

Why is this important?

Once you have been offered a job, most employers will ask you to supply at least one reference from a previous employer. For most people, this will not present any problems. However, if you’ve not been working for a while (perhaps as a result of a prison sentence), or if you were sacked by your previous employer (linked to the criminal record you now have) then you may be worried about asking them for a reference.

If your previous employer is aware of your criminal record – because you received it during the course of your employment or it was unspent at the time you were taken on by them – then it’s important that you know what they can and can’t disclose in a reference.

Is my previous employer obliged to provide me with a reference?

Your previous employer is under no legal obligation to provide you with a reference. However, there are several exceptions in which you may be entitled to one:

  • An employer must give you a reference if there was a written agreement to do so.
  • Where the reference is needed by a regulatory body – this may be somebody like the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that people employed to give financial advice are qualified to do so.
  • If your former employer agreed orally to provide you with a reference and is now refusing to, you may still be entitled to one, although this is probably going to be difficult to prove.
  • If your previous employer’s behaviour led you to believe that you would receive a reference. You may have grounds to claim a reference if, for example, they have always provided references to previous employees.

What if my employer refuses to give me a reference?

If your employer refuses to give you a reference, then this may ring alarm bells with your new company. However, some companies are increasingly refusing to give references because they’re worried about legal action.

You are likely to be asked to provide 1 or 2 work references and possibly, a personal reference – so choose carefully. If the organisation is satisfied with the majority of your references then they may not argue about one being refused.

Can my previous employer write something bad about me just because they do not like me?

No. The law states that any reference must be ‘fair, truthful and accurate’ and your referee should not mislead the employer asking for the reference in any way.

If you believe that you have been given an inaccurate, incorrect or misleading reference then you may be able to sue your previous employer for damages if you were able to prove that the reference prevented you from getting a job or, you suffered some other financial loss as a result of it. In some cases, you may also be able to bring an action against them for defamation.

What is my previous employer most likely to mention in a reference?

An employer can include details about your work abilities and performance together with the reasons why you left the job. However, employers are increasingly reluctant to provide too many details in a reference because they are worried about claims for defamation of character and other types of legal action that former employees can take. Therefore, they tend to provide the bare minimum for references, simply mentioning the job title and the dates when you were employed.

The duty for a referee to provide a true, accurate and fair references means that they will usually avoid:

  • Failing to respond to specific questions in a reference request without explaining why
  • Omitting key information that a new employer would expect to be disclosed
  • Organising the information in a way that would give a reasonable person a wrong inference or impression of you

What do employers tend to ask for from references?

We’ve seen examples of employers asking referees to provide details of criminal record. See an example below.

If your previous employer is aware of your criminal record or any pending prosecutions, then the Data Protection Actstates that they should class this as ‘special category data’. This is information which could be used in a discriminatory way and needs to be treated with greater care than other personal data.

If your previous employer is asked therefore whether they are aware of any criminal convictions or cautions on your record then, unless they have your explicit consent to do so, they should not respond to this question.

If you were able to prove that they had provided this information (possibly by submitting a subject access request to your current employer), then you would have the right to claim compensation from your referee as they would be in breach of the Data Protection Act.

In addition, under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, your referee must not disclose details of any spent convictions to prospective employers.

What can I do if my referee mentions my criminal record?

If you have been refused employment because a referee revealed a spent conviction, there may be a case for compensation through loss of future earnings due to your previous employer’s reference.

You may be able to take the matter to an employment tribunal. The Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)orthe Information Commissioners Office (ICO) may be able to provide you with assistance on issues relating to data use and protection.

Can I see the reference that my previous employer wrote?

Your previous or current employer do not have to automatically show you a reference they have written about you. Once you start a job with a new employer, you can ask them for a copy of any reference they have been given from your previous employer. This is a right under the Data Protection Act. Your previous employer is not obliged to provide you with such a copy.

If you didn’t start work with the new employer (maybe because the job offer was revoked as a result of a ‘bad’ reference), you can still request a copy of the reference from them. There is no obligation on an organisation to keep information relating to ‘potential employees’ and you may find that they no longer have it.

To request a copy of your reference, you will need to make a subject access request in writing to your new employer. They will then consider if any exemptions apply and if they can release the information to you.

What can I do if I can’t get a reference from my previous employer?

Without a reference to explain whether or not you are suited to the work, an employer may lack crucial information about you. This may be especially problematic if you are applying for a position of responsibility.

Assuming that a reference is necessary, try to secure a good character reference. If these are from mature professionals (e.g. doctor, teacher etc), they may carry enough weight to satisfy an employer.

If you are still in touch with any co-workers, mention to the employer that you could provide details of former colleagues who would be able to speak about you in a work capacity. Alternatively, consider any clients that you may have had in the past who might be prepared to provide you with a reference.

Remember that a reference can also come from any temporary or voluntary work you’ve undertaken.

Who can provide me with further information and assistance?

As mentioned above, ACAS and the ICO are both relevant here. Find out their details on our important links page.

Frequently asked questions

More information

  1. Practical self-help information – We have more information on looking for (and keeping) employment and volunteering.
  2. Discuss the issue – Read and share your experience on our online forum.

Get involved

Help us to add value to this information. You can:

  1. Comment on this information below.
  2. Send your feedback directly to us.
  3. Discuss your views and experiences with others on our online peer forum.
  4. Share your personal story by contributing to our online magazine, theRecord.

The opinion of a former employer can carry a lot of weight when you are interviewing for a new job. When asking a former supervisor to serve as a reference.

How to Request a Reference from a Former Employer

how to request a reference from a former employer

Job seekers today are encountering a new reality. In the past, most job seekers would include their references with their initial applications; they’d often provide a list of references as a matter of course.

This is no longer the standard for many job postings. If the post doesn’t require them, you can end with “references available upon request.” You must always be prepared to submit references when asked and many job postings will ask directly for references.

It can be tricky to get a good reference and asking past employers can be particularly challenging. Use these tips to ensure you handle the situation professionally.


Choose Wisely

If you’ve only had one job, you can only choose one employer to provide a reference. Most job seekers don’t have this issue. They’ve had many jobs over the course of their careers, so they can pick and choose their references a little more carefully.

One tip is to choose wisely. Most prospective employers would like your references to include your most recent employer, but there are a number of reasons you may not want to include this employer. Perhaps you left on bad terms or maybe you’re still employed and you don’t want to let them know you’re on the job hunt.

If a past employer was incredibly critical of you or your work or if you parted on bad terms, it’s best not to ask this employer for a reference. You should be reasonably confident the person you choose will recommend you.

Your reference should also be as relevant to the field as possible. If you once had a part-time job as a pizza delivery person and you’re applying to be an IT security specialist, your manager from the pizza place may not be the best reference, even if they’ll give you a glowing review.


Approach Professionally

Many people ask former bosses, managers, and supervisors for a reference in an off-the-cuff manner. They may drop the question in an informal conversation or they may send over a one- or two-line email.

While asking for a reference doesn’t need to be an overwrought affair, you should be professional about it. Ask politely and give the person the option to decline. Phrase the question in a professional way. “Would you be willing to provide a reference for me?” is much better than “Hey, can I use you as a reference?”


Always Ask

Another thing to keep in mind is that you must ask for a reference. Some people jot down their former employers’ contact details as references without ever asking or letting them know.

This is frowned upon for a few reasons. First, your reference may be caught completely off-guard when a potential employer calls up about you. They may not provide you with the best reference because they weren’t expecting to be asked. It may take them time to remember who you are and they may have to provide poor answers to questions. Asking beforehand gives them notice they may be contacted.

Another issue is privacy. You’ll be sending out someone’s contact details, including their name, their work email address, and even their work phone number. While much of this information may be available anyway, some people would prefer not to be contacted and they don’t want their information passed around this way.

Always get consent before sending out someone’s contact details.


Be Prepared to Ask Others

You may need to ask several people before you can find someone willing to act as a reference. Be prepared for people to decline your request.

In most cases, if you choose wisely and ask in a professional manner, people will agree. Getting someone to provide a reference doesn’t need to be overly difficult, but you do need to approach it properly.

Combine great references with a stand-out resume to make your next job search shorter and easier.


The opinion of a former employer can carry a lot of weight when you are interviewing for a new job. When asking a former supervisor to serve as a reference.

how to request a reference from a former employer
Written by Melmaran
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