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How to handle references
  1. Croner


References can play an important role in the recruitment process. However, there are things to consider when responding to, or making, a reference request

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THERE is no general obligation on an employer to provide a reference for a current or previous employee, although the contract of employment, or the business sector (such as finance or childcare), may require you to do so. Therefore, if, with these exceptions, and for whatever reason, you decide not to provide a reference, you are within your rights to do so, but you must stick rigidly to that decision.

A confidential phone conversation is just as relevant – and probably as damning – as a written report, and a sly comment that ‘the less said about that man the better’, is a perfectly valid adverse reference. This article is based on material produced by Croner, a division of Wolters Kluwer (UK) Ltd, Croner House, London Road, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey KT22 6ST ( No part of this material may be reproduced without the written permission of the publishers

If you decide that you will provide a reference, then you must take great care in its preparation and presentation. If, for example, you give a glowing reference for an employee in order to get rid of him or her, but he or she goes on to behave as badly with the new employer as with you, that employer may sack him or her and sue you for the cost of securing a replacement, such as the cost of an advertisement or an agency fee. Conversely, if you make adverse comments about an ex-employee that you cannot adequately substantiate and, as a result, he or she finds it difficult to find another job or it blights his or her career in a particular sector, he or she may sue you for a substantial sum of compensation.

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The key requirement in providing a reference is that you do not mislead the reader, either by what you include or what you omit to mention. You must be honest. A ‘good reference’ is one that does not necessarily commend the subject, but gives a truthful account. For this reason you need to make sure that both the person asking for the reference and the person who is to provide it are authorised to do so. Your company should make clear who is responsible for providing references. Certainly, the people who know the subject well need to make an input but, ideally, only one person in the organisation should be authorised to compile and issue references. A request in letter form should make clear the status of the writer, but before responding to a telephoned or e-mailed request you should say that you will call back; before doing so, contact the organisation to check that the person making the request appears to have adequate authority.

Fact and opinion

When writing a reference you should check all facts that you include. You may certainly offer your opinion, but it must be clearly identified as such and not be malicious or humorous. An example might be that ‘Mr Dogsbody was absent for only three days during the two years that he worked for us. We do not have his timekeeping record but seem to remember that it was good. In our view he will make a good accounts clerk’: two facts and one opinion.

Comments that ‘he goes through life pushing doors marked “pull”’, or ‘you will be lucky to have Mr Dogsbody work for you’, were probably amusing when they were first quoted at a party many years ago, but they are no longer funny and instead are useless and quite derogatory. If he or she was no good, say so and explain why.

Finally, head your letter ‘Private and confidential’. This has little value in law but does serve to remind the recipient that the document should be used with discretion. Be aware that, regardless of his or her rights, the subject may become aware of the content of the reference. Therefore consider – if you were taken to court, could you substantiate all that you have written?

If you agree to respond to a telephone request, explain that you will call back, carry out the authorisation check, then prepare the reference in writing just as if you were to post it. Indeed, you may feel it prudent to do just that. If you reply by telephone, read out the reference carefully, and make a note of any questions asked and your precise replies. Do not be lulled into believing that a phone conversation is confidential. The listener can note what you say and use it in court against you.

Asking for a reference

If you need a reference on a potential recruit, describe the work the person is to do and especially the responsibilities. Ask relevant questions such as how the candidate performed under pressure; his or her relationships with other people; how well he or she can handle money or sensitive information; and whether he or she is well motivated. If anything is unclear in the response, go back to the person who provided the reference or explore the issues at a further interview with the candidate.

If you need a reference to support your recruitment process, think carefully about the timing. Always ask permission of the subject, who will probably not wish you to approach the current employer unless you have made a clear job offer. Even someone who is out of work may wish to have a word with the referee before you make contact, perhaps to explain exactly what the job is so that an appropriate response may be structured, or perhaps just out of politeness.

Usually, however, references are sought after the person has been offered the job, in which case you need to make sure to state clearly in writing that the job offer is made conditional upon your receipt of satisfactory references. On receipt of the reference, examine it to see whether it confirms your impression of the candidate, or whether it raises issues. In the latter case you will have some research to do. Whether or not the reference is deemed satisfactory is subjective and entirely up to you.

References can be an important and useful part of the recruiter's toolkit. They can be used to confirm impressions gained at interview, to check on information that candidates have given, and to throw light on some of the questionable areas that may remain after the interview. However, they suffer from one major defect, which is the professionalism of the referee and the accuracy of the information given. Many people, in order to save time, are content to throw together a ‘good, reliable worker who gave us no trouble’ reference that is not based on real knowledge of the employee and is, at best, meaningless and, at worst, dangerous. They would do better to refuse to give a reference than mislead. This, therefore, makes it important for you to get to know potential referees, a job that is not difficult if you are recruiting in a limited area.

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