QUESTION:   Recently I have been to a few job interviews where I have been asked for a written reference from my former employer.  That employer will not even give me a letter confirming what I did, how long I worked there and what my salary was.  Is there any law requiring them to give me a letter of reference?
ANSWER:   No, but for what it’s worth, I think there should be such a law.
Too many Canadian employers watch too much American TV or take their direction from an American head office. 
Apparently, in the United States, there have been some lawsuits over letters of reference and as a result some Americans simply won’t give them.  So far as I am aware, however, there has not been one successful lawsuit in the history of this country over a letter of reference.  Employers have not been sued by new employers alleging they exaggerated their former employee’s skills and employees have not sued former employers for not giving a good enough reference.
Even though there has never been such a lawsuit, some Canadian employers simply have a blanket policy saying that references will not be provided, verbally or in writing.  These policies are not only stupid, they are unfair. 
Companies with this policy seldom advertise that fact to their employees.  Imagine rendering two decades of loyal service to an organization, receiving merit awards and promotions for your work and then being laid off as a result of restructuring.  When you begin to look for new employment, you suddenly discover that your old employer will be of absolutely no assistance to you and that there is no law saying that they have to be of any assistance. 
I must pause to note that an employer requesting a written reference is a little odd.  Statistics show that most employers, while they appreciate a written reference, want to speak to somebody for whom you previously worked.  They feel more comfortable with a conversation than a written reference.  My advice to you is to contact individuals for whom you use to work personally and ask them if they would provide a verbal reference if contacted.  Once you have confirmed that they are ready to do so in an “unofficial” capacity, volunteer to give those names to any potential employers.
If you have any formal written performance reviews from your old job in your possession, provide a copy to the potential employer, that should be just as good as a letter of reference as it will provide a description of the job you performed and document your performance in that position. 
Try sending an email to your old boss asking if he could simply confirm by reply email what your position, salary and tenure was with the old company. 

I must say that your old employer is worse than most.  While a number of employers will not provide qualitative letters of reference assessing your performance as an employee, the vast majority of those will still provide you with a “tombstone” letter of reference. 
A tombstone letter of reference is precisely what you asked confirms your position, tenure and salary.
If all else fails, show your old employer a copy of this article.  Maybe they will see the light.  After all, some day the person who is telling you they will not provide a reference may be looking for a job too.  Maybe it will dawn on them that what comes around goes around.
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, February 3, 2004
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809