In a recent case before the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), a partner of a law firm was ordered to pay compensation to a solicitor he supervised after he gave her a bad reference which resulted in a prospective employer withdrawing a job offer.
The solicitor, Ms Bullimore, argued that she was given an unfavourable reference because she had previously brought claims of sex discrimination and unfair dismissal against the partner's law firm, Witham Weld Solicitors. She worked at the firm between 1999 and 2004, and her claims were eventually settled out-of-court.
'Inflexible as to her opinions'
In the reference, the partner, Mr Hawthorne, said the solicitor had a "poor relationship" with members of the firm. He also mentioned, in answer to a question about how the employment ended, not simply that she resigned but also the fact that she had brought legal proceedings against the firm. Finally, in answer to a question about her strengths and weaknesses, he wrote that "she could on occasion be inflexible as to her opinions".
When it became clear that the job offer was not going to proceed, Ms Bullimore asked for a copy of the reference. She then brought legal proceedings against Hawthorne, Witham Weld, and the firm that withdrew the job offer.
The latter defendant, a firm called Sebastians, settled out-of-court for £42,500. But a compromise could not be reached with Witham Weld and Hawthorne so the case proceeded to an employment tribunal, which awarded an additional £7,500 for injury to feelings.
The tribunal refused to grant compensation for loss of future earnings, however, and Ms Bullimore decided to appeal.
The EAT upheld the appeal on a point of law and passed the case back to the employment tribunal to reconsider awarding her damages for lost earnings.
Needless to say, always think carefully before you write or rely on a reference!