It's not just on the football pitch that referees must be careful these days. Employers acting as referees for former staff can also be vulnerable in choosing what they say about them. The House of Lords ruled around five years ago that employers owe a 'duty of care' to former employees when drafting job references. That means making reasonable enquiries to ensure that the contents of the reference are true. An individual whose employment prospects are harmed by an inaccurate reference can sue for compensation.
A recent case went even further. Even if various components of the reference are all factually correct, the employee can complain that it gives a misleading or 'unfair' overall impression. So it's wise to mention the good points as well as the bad.
And that's not all. The employer also owes a duty to recipients of references - usually prospective new employers. They, too, may be able to sue if, having relied on a testimonial from a former employer, they take on someone who turns out to be a dead loss.
So you're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Slag off an ex-employee too much and you may be sued for not playing fair; gloss over unpalatable truths and you run the risk of the new employer crying foul.
Who'd be a referee?
Michael Burd and James Davis at Lewis Silkin, solicitors
0171 227 8000; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.