Liability for a poor reference

The Employment Appeal Tribunal judgement in Bullimore v Pothecary Witham Weld explored who is liable when a bad reference has been given.

Ms Bullimore brought proceedings against PWW, a firm of solicitors, which were eventually settled out of the Employment Tribunal by way of a compromise agreement. Ms Bullimore went on to work for a new employer. Some years later she was made redundant and asked PWW for a reference to give to a potential new employer, Sebastians. Mr Hawthorne, a partner at PWW provided a reference that highlighted Ms Bullimore’s ‘poor relationship’ with the partners and described her as being ‘inflexible as to her opinions’.

Having received the reference Sebastians withdrew the job offer from Ms Bullimore. Ms Bullimore brought a victimisation claim against both PWW and Sebastians and the Employment Tribunal found both firms liable. Sebastians settled before the Employment Tribunal could decide the amount of compensation it had to pay but the Employment Tribunal ruled that PWW was not liable to compensate Ms Bullimore for her future loss of earnings as it had not withdrawn the job offer, Sebastians had. Ms Bullimore appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and won, the decision noted that both the giver and recipient of a job reference may be guilty of victimisation and the giver of the reference liable for the continuing loss of earnings.

Clearly the lesson to be learned from this is that negative references must be avoided. It is better to give a bland factual reference than risk an Employment Tribunal claim. Employers should be especially careful where the reference to be given is in respect of an employee or worker who has previously brought proceedings against them.

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