Your career dilemmas answered by experts.
Q: I was made redundant from my job as a social worker with a small children’s charity, when the local authority who commissioned our service did not renew its contract. My redundancy was no reflection on my work – or so I thought. I was shortlisted for a job recently but did not get it. I gave my old boss as a contact for a reference and wonder if this was the problem, and if I can ask to see it.
A: A worker has the right to read personal data held by potential or ex-employers, writes Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. However, there are certain exceptions to what you can see, which includes any references given in confidence by the employer. If a reference is confidential the recipient must act reasonably in deciding whether or not to show you. Consent of the referee should be sought and this can be refused.
You can appeal to the information commissioner, who oversees the Data Protection and Freedom of Information acts. He or she may, in some circumstances, order disclosure. So never assume that confidentiality can be guaranteed absolutely.
An employer can refuse to provide a reference although most will supply one. It may actually be discriminatory to not give a reference. Also a negligence claim could be made by a new employer if the old one failed to reveal something.
The reason you did not get the job might not be down to the reference, as most organisations only seek one for the successful candidate at the end of recruitment. Referees should not offer a subjective opinion about an individual’s performance or suitability, which they cannot substantiate with evidence. Therefore most employers will be very careful to give a fair and accurate reference.
It is important to think about why you fear it was the reference that let you down. Most organisations will create a clear job description or specification before they embark on interviews. It is the job specification that will help the recruiter decide who is right for the job and to select a candidate with the skills and personal attributes needed.
It is worth seeking feedback – only then will you really find out what they were after and why you didn’t get the job. It will help you identify areas you can improve on before applying for other jobs and going for interviews. It could also help you realise that you may not have got the job because of something as simple as another candidate applying with more relevant experience and skills.