Ask the panel

May 20, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I work in an eminent scientist's lab. Unfortunately we don't get on and I am looking for jobs elsewhere. I don't want to use him as a referee as I don't think he would provide a balanced view of my work. All the jobs that have come up require a reference from my current principal investigator and even if they didn't, everyone in my field knows him and would be bound to ring him up to ask about me. Is this the end of my career?

Everyone agrees that this is tricky.

* Our panellist from the Association of University Teachers says: "There is no way to guarantee that someone does not undermine your position with prospective employers, but you can take steps to limit the possibility."

He says that the personnel department might help. "You could seek to ensure that formal requests for references and replies are routed via the personnel department to ensure that unfair statements are not included," he says. "You could also seek other references that will be supportive and may acknowledge that you have encountered difficulties for which you are not responsible."

He says that if the relationship breakdown is acknowledged by all parties you may consider looking for agreed wording or an assurance that you will receive a copy of the reference.

* Our panellist from lecturers' union Natfhe acknowledges that yours is a "real and common problem". He says: "Your eminent scientist PI is subject to the same common law requirements as anyone else. If an employer provides a reference, they have a duty of care to ensure any reference does not contain false statements or is malicious. Nor may they provide details of alleged complaints against staff where these have not been drawn to the attention of the member of staff."

* Our resident academic feels all researchers must have strategies to cope with this. "Research staff need to recognise just how vulnerable to the potential whims of a PI their career is," she says. "They should have strategies in place to protect them long before this sort of problem arises. One way of guarding against total dependence on a PI is to maintain former working relationships. Keep in touch with previous PIs or supervisors and, where possible, carry on working with them, perhaps writing up papers. You can legitimately ask them to write a reference after you have stopped official work under their aegis."

She adds: "If you haven't done this, it might be advantageous to forge new working relationships, perhaps by undertaking a small-scale pilot study.

Focus on someone you are considering working with. Then their experience of working with you should mitigate against a negative reference. You might even get a chance to warn them not to expect a glowing accolade from your PI."

* The research councils acknowledge that these problems arise. "Data protection principles generally mean that references will be made available to candidates. If your referee is made aware of this, they will hopefully be more objective and factual in what they say," the panellist says.

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association provides a summary of what you can do. "If possible, your first step should be to discuss the situation and your plans with your PI and see if you can agree a way to resolve your differences and either decide to remain in your existing employment or get agreement on a reference.

"There is generally no legal obligation on an employer to provide a reference unless it is written into, or implied, in the employee's contract, but it is worth noting that discrimination legislation has been extended to protect ex-employees where a refusal to write a reference is on discriminatory grounds. Where a reference is provided, an employer must not make careless or negligent comments and it must be accurate and not misleading. If an employee does not get a job because the reference was inaccurate, he or she may be able to take legal action."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.
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