Are References Worth the Paper They're Written On?

Photograph of Jenefer Livings, Founder of Silk Helix Ltd
5 January 2022
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You’ve gone through the recruitment process, offered the role, subject to references. But why? What are you hoping to get from this? Do references really provide you with any benefit?

There are industries such as education where references are an absolute must to comply with regulations. For the rest of us, are they simply a waste of admin time or do they provide valuable information preventing you from making mistakes?

Many Will Just Confirm Dates

A few years ago there was a lot of fear around references, the advice heavily became to only confirm dates and job titles. The most a reference is going to highlight in this situation is that someone lied about the length of time in a role. Aside from confirmation they were employed, it does very little.

You Can’t Write a Negative Reference

The fear that created ‘date only’ references came out of the myth that you cannot write a negative reference. The truth is you cannot write an incorrect reference, you can in stating facts cover things like “they were dismissed” or “they were facing disciplinary action”. The reality for many employers is that the things they really want to write were never actually dealt with in a formal procedure. If the employee wasn’t aware, didn’t have a right of reply and there is no record to back up the reference objectively then it can’t be included.

It’s just one Opinion?

References should be clearly based in fact, however, what is fact is a matter of opinion.

If your prospective employee was in the wrong job, in a company that didn’t suit their values or their motivation or perhaps they didn’t get on with their manager, they may not have been the best performer in that organisation. They may be joining you because they know things are not right where they are. You are hopefully offering them an environment that better suits their needs. All of these things could create a situation where you receive a less than glowing reference but actually if you give the person a chance they could turn out to be a star for you.

In a really negative situation you may have someone who has left a role because of bullying and that bullying effectively continues in the provision of poor references.

People will only share their good references

In reality, your prospective employees are not going to provide you with a referee who might write something negative.

Companies and People Move On

The world of work has moved on. Another reason companies often use standard references is to reduce management time handling requests as well as enabling references to be written when the manager has moved on. If you’re looking for references from the last two jobs, it wouldn’t be uncommon to be looking back 5 years or more and it’s entirely possible that managers who worked with that individual are no longer with the organisation. Add into that GDPR requirements to only keep data for reasonable time frames, much longer than 5 years and not only have memories faded but the records will be very limited.

Not all can access references equally

There are many valid reasons someone wouldn’t have suitable references available to them, two obvious examples are education leavers and parents returning to the workforce after raising a family.

You may consider going to the education establishments for references, but how like work is education? There are many very successful people in the world of work who report not being great at school, not enjoying it, not being the teacher’s ideal pupil.

But, it might catch out lying on their CV

Yes, it might. If they lied and then gave a referee who countered that lie. I’ve also experienced references that look OK on the face of it, then once someone is a few weeks into employment and the problems start we re-read the reference and suddenly between the lines is a whole different interpretation. The reality is, on very few occasions do references actually stop you making a hiring mistake. There are plenty of people out there who are very good at selling themselves in a recruitment process and not so good when it comes to actually doing the job. The best recruitment process in the world won’t stop this type of person, it’s why a robust induction and probationary period is so important.

Should we stop taking references then?

If you’re in a regulated industry, don’t stop, you must take them. If you’re not regulated or your regulator doesn’t require references then think about why you take them and what benefit they bring your organisation weighed against the cost of administering them.

If you do take them and want to withdraw an offer as a result of references you must ensure firstly you have made the offer subject to references. You should also speak to the individual about the reference, find out if there is a reason the reference may not be the most positive or why there are inconsistencies. Only when you’re sure the reference is reliable and the person wouldn’t perform better for you should you consider withdrawing an offer.

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