More on references

The previous post about references focused on what you could do about a bad reference.

Another question that arises is whether you can make a reluctant employer or former employer give you a meaningful reference at all – what can you do if they just say ‘It’s not our policy to give references’ or ‘It’s our policy only to give a factual reference confirming job title and dates of employment’?

Unfortunately, the answer to this will almost always be ‘nothing.’ For some employees at certain points in their careers, at least as much of the value of a particular job will lie in the experience gained as in the money earned. The value of the experience is significantly diminished if your former employer refuses to back you up with confirmation that your responsibilities were what you say they were and you discharged them satisfactorily. Nevertheless, although you have a clear contractual right to your pay, whether or not there was ever a contract in writing, you will only have a contractual right to a fair reference if you had the foresight – and the bargaining power – to write it into your contract when you started.

If you are about to start a new job, and you do feel confident enough to rewrite your contract of employment, you might try inserting something like this:

The Employer will promptly on request by any potential future employer of the employee provide a reference for the Employee confirming the duties undertaken by the Employee, commenting fairly on her performance of those duties, her attendance and her character, and referring as appropriate to her significant achievements in the post. The Employer will give the Employee the opportunity to read and comment on a draft of the reference before it is sent. This clause survives the termination of the employment relationship.

You can tackle this kind of negotiation head on by asking for a meeting and/ or sending a draft amended contract to your new employer with an invitation to them to produce a final draft for your signature. Alternatively, you could try and take advantage of the kind of inertia that employers more often benefit from. Make your changes in manuscript on the contract you have been given to sign, sign it and send it back with a covering letter (keeping a copy of both, of course) saying something like ‘I enclose a signed copy of my contract, with certain amendments which I hope will be acceptable.’

The purpose of the covering letter is to make sure they can’t say later that they didn’t realise you’d made any changes: but if you’re lucky, the HR officer who receives your letter may just file your amended contract and leave it at that. If so, you can take it that your amendments are agreed.

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