Most people’s CVs will end with the ‘References are available on request’ line, but have you ever thought about how important references are? To some employers they are an essential part of the recruitment process, and can even be the deciding factor in who gets the job.
But should this be the case? Do references give an accurate depiction of a person’s capabilities, or are they open to misuse by lazy or vindictive ex-employers?
We spoke with two people of opposing views to open up the debate on whether a reference is important. Let us know your thoughts.
Linda Jodrell is HR Director at Citation, a provider of employment law, HR and health and safety solutions. She’s had plenty of experience dealing with references and views them as a vital part of the recruitment process.
References are an incredibly important factor of recruitment for one main reason; they validate (or not) what the candidate has put on their CV and told you during selection. However, having said this, in my experience you get less insight from references than you used to.
It used to be that a reference was brutally honest but I think employment legislation has made many employers uncertain about what they can and cannot say. This has resulted in many cases of a standard reference confirming the employee was employed and nothing more.
The legislation actually means that all references must be fair and accurate. Contrary to what a lot of people think, an employer can give a bad reference and include details if an employee was sacked, as long as there is evidence to back up the statement, such as warning letters or appraisal notes.
In my experience, references are used as a supplement to an interview, and only come to the forefront if they contradict what the candidate says at the interview.
Some arguments against references are based around the myth that if a person left a company in less-than-ideal circumstances, their reference will be deliberately bad to try and sabotage future employment.
But because of the legislation mentioned earlier, references have to be fair and accurate, otherwise the employee could claim for damages in court.
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Nigel Booth* now works for an engineering firm but feels that a bad experience with a previous employer highlights an inherent issue with the reference procedure.
As someone who has problems with references, I think they are a problematic way to judge an employee. Ironically, it’s the change in legislation that caused this.
The thinking these days is that if a person has a reference that just cites their previous job description and the time they were there, it’s because they were a troublesome employee.
While I can see that this protects an employer from legal issues, it throws up another problem. If you happen to be cursed by an HR officer who is lazy, they can jump at the chance to give a bare-bones reference. This is something that happened to me.
I have always performed well in my work, have received consistently good appraisals and so have always thought myself to be a good candidate. But when I found myself having to find a new job, I encountered problems.
After receiving three rejection letters from companies where I thought the interview had gone really well, I asked one of the companies for some feedback.
After a bit of digging, I discovered that the HR department in my previous employment had gone the minimal route with my reference and so I was being judged as a trouble-maker.
Even without this problem, the fact that a lot of companies use HR to construct references is a problem. An employee’s manager should be the one to give a reference, both for what tasks the candidate performed and also in terms of character.
I appreciate that employment law is full of pitfalls and people are paranoid at being sued, so maybe there could just be a standard set of questions.
By dealing with specifics, i.e. did the candidate perform well in their role, with aspects that are backed up by performance reviews, there would be no room for offence to be taken.
In my view, until a standard reference can be rolled out, I think there’s too much uncertainty for them to be viewed as important.
*Name has been changed
What do you think? Are references important or should your CV and interview performance speak for itself? Let us know in the comments box below!