A reference is a written statement provided by a previous employer to an individual following on from the termination of their contract of employment. Generally speaking, a reference will include, at the very least, details on the employee’s position with that previous employer in addition to their start date and end date.
The author of a reference owes a duty of care to the person about whom it is written and an employer may be liable for damages if, due to a negligent, defamatory or malicious reference, the person about whom the reference is written suffers a loss. The employer must be accurate and fair but must not give a misleading impression. A good rule of thumb is that you do not write anything in a reference which you would not wish the subject of the reference to see.
The purpose of obtaining references is quite simply, to put an added safeguard in to the recruitment and selection process so that additional information is available which may affect the decision to employ.