The humble employment reference is an indispensable part of recruitment, but HR managers should be aware of risks.

While the vast majority of employers take the provision of references seriously and provide fair and beneficial documents, a misleading or erroneous reference can be costly. A candidate may require more training than their reference suggests, or may be entirely unsuited for the position. A derogatory reference, meanwhile, can considerably harm an individual’s job prospects. Given the vulnerability of workers and prospective employers to inaccurate references, it is perhaps surprising that employers have few legal obligations to provide honest references.

Duty to give a reference?

If an employer is reluctant to provide a positive reference, they may be tempted to not provide one at all. Sometimes this will be the best option: the employer does not openly criticise a former employee, the worker is not burdened by a poor report and prospective employers are free to draw their own inferences.

However, there are limited instances where employers may be obliged to provide a reference. In Australia, there is some judicial support for the implication of a contractual term compelling employers to provide references. If it is usual practice in an industry to provide them, and the worker is unlikely to find work without one, the courts might imply such a term. This will, however, be highly context-specific and there is certainly no blanket legal duty on employers to give references.

Defamation and negligence

Once a reference is given, employers may be liable under defamation law if it is inaccurate and damaging. An aggrieved worker might seek damages, or injunct the employer from making further defamatory statements. Employers can avoid liability by being honest and fair in their assessment of the worker, and only making negative statements supported by objective evidence. Provided the negative reference was not given for reasons of malice, the doctrine of qualified privilege will provide a strong defence to defamation lawsuits.

While a prospective employer has no protection under defamation law for damage caused to them by a false- positive reference, they may be able to sue for negligence. Employers might owe a duty of care to anyone who is likely to suffer damage as a consequence of (both negative and positive) misstatements in an employment reference, which would encompass the worker and possible future employers. This is certainly the legal position in Britain where one case saw an ex-employee successfully sue a company for negligence following the provision of a damagingly inaccurate reference.

The legal position is unsettled in Australia – although some courts have endorsed the British approach, differences in underlying law means the question remains open. Until then, employers would be well-advised to ensure they are fair, honest and take reasonable care when providing employment references.

Disagreeable agreement

It is not uncommon for an employer and employee to agree upon a reference if the employment relationship breaks down and the employee exits by way of a settlement deed. These references are typically positive or neutral, and might not reflect the employer’s true sentiment. If Australian courts do establish a duty to provide accurate references, employers could be in breach of that duty by giving a false-positive, albeit agreed, reference.

It is difficult to reconcile these competing concerns, and while the law remains unsettled, employers are in an uncomfortable position. As it is far harder to attach liability for omissions than positive statements, where possible, employers should only include objectively verifiable statements in an agreed reference.

While several legal risks arise when organisations give employment references, they can be mostly mitigated through common sense. Provide accurate information, do not defame former employees and keep any negative comments to oral communication. If these precautions are followed, references need not be a risky business.

First published August 2017 in HR Monthly.