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Are references important?

Get the two sides of the references debate.

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are references important debate

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!

Have a look at the worlds worst references here.

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(All comments have to be approved before they appear)

  1. Marius

    Reference should not be part of the any recruitment process as in many occasions some personal feelings from ex colleagues or managers can bring you lots of problems. Sometimes you believe that you have been a superb colleague but the view of other can be different. HR doesn’t have the right information regarding their employees they can only give you basic information and by low they can not highlight any issues as is unfair. The only people that can give an accurate reference are the managers. The problem you have with this is that sometimes you can have a fantastic relation with your managers and they can be very generous regarding your reference and then where is the point?, as they won’t highlight any issues regarding yourself. To me it’s simple, the interview process is the best way to understand the abilities of the person, assessment centers plays a superb part in recruitment as you can see for yourself the true character of every individual. Reference is something from the past and we should not use it its misleading and mostly unfair. Face to face interviews is the way forward getting to know the individuals is simply the best option.

    • Renita

      I completely agree. References should not determine if a person gets a job or not. A face-to-face interview should. Some employers do not check references. Thanks!

  2. s. giles

    No they are not very good they are very basic or vindictive at the end of the day when you start work you are on probation for a set time so let the new employer see for them self’s what you work like

  3. Lynn Toppng

    No…As a former having employee having worked for the same company for 13 years you have an incident out of your control they sack you (car crash) then give you no job description just a start date and ending date what does that say to a future empoyer about you your life is on hold .

  4. Tess

    Yet another problem is when your manager has left the company after you (or just before you). So, when you are asked for a reference to validate and/or report on you as an employee, there’s nobody there who can comment, and you don’t have the number for contacting that person. This has happened to me a lot.

  5. Jamil

    Hello there

    Thank you for having this assessment.
    From my point of view it is a big mistake for an employer to evaluate any potential candidate based on references, it is simply like blind folded. Any new comer e.g. from another location in UK or out of Uk may not have references for a job that he/she is most suitable but not short listed just because of the references. It is for me, one kind of discrimination which is lawfully not acceptable. The candidate should be evaluated based on his qualification and practical knowledge.

  6. Kate

    It should be illegal to give a biased reference. There should be a qualifing checklist. Prior grudges can ruin your chances of finding a job especially if they are vindictive characters.

  7. Keith Richardson

    I was very interested to read this article about references CV’s and the whole HR situation. At first I was very tempted to write my story here in the comments box, but on reflection, I don’t think that it’s perhaps the right thing to do.
    However I do believe that I have an interesting history and can share some interesting points that I think will put a whole new angle on this article. I have tried to link into Ms Cole’s web page from here, but can’t seem to do so. I would like to be able to share my point of view on several items if anyone would care to make contact via my e mail as supplied
    Thank you

  8. Joe

    Employers have a bad attitude in general at the moment. Its always how can we squeeze the most money and highest productivity out of the best possible staff. Cut your overheads and maximize your profit mentality seems to have been cultivated recently and was even taught to me when I attended University. Jobs I used to walk into back 10 years ago now require CV, qualifications, references, interview, competence based interview, video interview, additional testing, drug test, valid passport at a cost of £80 to yourself(to prove your a citizen of your own country), one even asked for bank statements so they could see that I had not been in prison at the time I said I was unemployed. Its ridiculous. Its like they don’t want to employ you from the word go. I’m sick of hearing the recession used as an excuse for this.

  9. Peter

    AS a former HR Manager I would like to share my personal views. A lot of the background to the reference issue relates to the finacial services act. From memory a chain of events something like this occured.(may not be totally accurate?) A finacial advisor was a approached and head hunted for a rival company. The existing employer was a little upset and tried to retain the advisor by offering improvements to salary etc. The advisor rejected the offers made by the existing company. The current employer where upset as the advisor was very good and they repeatedly tried to keep hold of the person. The current employer were requested to provide a reference by the new employer. They doctored the reference to indicate that there was some sort of black mark but said this was confidential and could not be revealed. The black mark was not true. The advisors offer for the new role was withdrawn. The company he worked for currently offered to retain him. He declined feeling something had been done in the background and the trust and confidence at the heart of the contract had been undermined. As trust and confidence are crucial to the role of an advisor he applied to the courts to have the facts declared openly. Much wrangling but finally the courts ruled that he had a a right to see the contents of the reference as it was preventing him going about his occupation. Ultimately the truth was out. Somehow the HR community took fright and seems to have taken the opportunity to use this a a case for not giving refences. The company I worked for at that time decided we liked references. I wrote a clear set of questions which could be answered quickly and simply. (eg Date started – date left.
    Did they resign Yes/No ?
    At the point of resignsation where they the subject of a disciplinary process? Yes No. etc etc
    It worked well. Its factual and clear. We did not want opinions just facts.
    I believe the comment these days is we dont references it takes time and – “we have 2 years before a new employee has employment rights”. That 2 years is a long time to assess someone and unless line managers are realy good the employer may not really know the truth about a person till quite late in in the 2 years – or worse still later on again!!

  10. Ady

    Maybe HR should be from outside the company too (third party).
    All HRs and line managers should be trained to learn facial expressions of lies. In this way at interview in front of a panel, candidate’s face will ”tell” everything. You can fake the truth for some minutes, but not for an hour. Such way no need for references and new employer won’t lost 2-3 months as probation period.

  11. Jeanetta

    I spent 9 years in one company and I was made redundant during the maternity. My employer got rid off my like a piece of garbage. He stopped paying me SMP, he did not give me a note, he did not pay Redundancy Payment…he left me with nothing. I had to contact ACAS and the went to Tribunal…in the meantime my employer liquidated the company and opened “the fresh one”… GREAT! What am I supposed to add to my CV?
    I have been squeezed like a lemon by my ex-employer and the system…I do not care if that was legal or not. Certainly it was immoral. Any suggestions, please let me know…

  12. Hello


    First of all, HR departments should be named as MR (Management Resources), they don’t work neutrally as per the standard operating procedure in a company, they always support the management.

    References is nothing but a crap created by some useless people which some agencies and companies follow until today and it is totally unnecessary –
    1. Does references remove the probation period making it an unconditional offer ?
    2. If all individuals work in a company for a reference, then one can not work for a company, people will be working for individuals losing their self respect and self confidence and neutrality in work.
    3. If a company or a agency ask for a reference, then straight away reject their follow up and say to them to go and f*** themselves. Ever time we entertain that we are supporting this stupid concept to pass this on to the future generation.
    4. Professional Reference : If i know someone well in a company, references will always be positive irrespective of however stupid
    I am and if i share a neutral relation with some one, then the reference from that individual may be a speculative one (you wont know what is going to go out) or If i dont share a good relationship with a colleague in a team, then i dont have to say what it is going to be.

    Employment reference in general is more than good enough (just to confirm if a candidate has worked in a particular company) rather than to take a detailed feed back which is more than stupid.

  13. Ravi

    There are some more good sites are available using which applicant and referrer can connect to each other like… both applicant and referrer can post the job and request for referrer’s references.

  14. zara

    Please dont go to any interviews without refrence,
    The employer will some how ask you, its just how employability runs , if you dont have any work experience and looking for work, then go do some volunteery work or ask job centre. You could also get reference from college or schools. I can relate because i had really less experience and was about to loose my chances to fer my new job just because of the refrence.

  15. Amna

    No, Reference are not important if you have skills needed for that job and experience working with large companies.


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