References- the biggest waste of time in recruitment?

When I first started in recruitment, I was told that people aren’t allowed to provide a bad reference (I think someone initially said it was illegal)…….. WHAT???  At first I thought it was one of those induction pranks- “oh, can you get me some tartan paint” etc, but alas no.  As it turns out, its not illegal as long as it is factual, but the Urban Myth that it is in fact illegal does seem to have permeated wide and far.  This has resulted in many corporate policies solely providing a “dates only” reference, to avoid possible litigation.

So what is the point of references if they don’t actually provide feedback on a former employee?

Its easy to provide a non-committal, vague reference by filling in a reference form, so I always make sure I take a verbal reference.  But we seem to have created a secret language where the person taking the reference has to listen out for key words like “adequate”, “okay”, or “satisfactory”, and then decide if they mean that in a negative way.  I often wonder if I should start skyping people when taking references to check if they are winking when they are giving the reference, or see if they have their fingers crossed behind their backs.


Pretty much all organisations will take references, and the process is relatively standard, but it is fundamentally flawed and no-one seems that bothered, despite the massively destructive impact it can have on an organisation.  Social Housing is a very insular industry, but even then, I know plenty of candidates who I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, who move from one role to another to another, leaving behind a trail of destruction.  How?  People are providing non-committal, dates-only references, and lazy employers and agencies aren’t questioning them.

Many organisations treat references as a tick box exercise.  They blindly do it because there is a policy that tells them they have to do it.  A person is interviewed, reference details taken and then these are passed to someone in HR (who may have never met the candidate), who sends out a form and waits to hear back.  It comes back and if there is nothing along the lines of, “he did steal £30,000 of stock”, or “would never hire this person ever again…EVER!”, then it just gets filed and never sees the light of day again.  WHY????

So are we just wasting our valuable time?  Surely, we can do much better than this?

Having recruited to the same market for such a long time, I had a strong enough network to go to people I know and respect to ask their unofficial opinion on someone who I had registered.  I would often get a candid, but constructive assessment of their strengths, weaknesses and everything in between.  This is invaluable and helps me to put people in a role where they will excel, rather than be out of their depth.

Having recently moved to my new company, and having to operate in a different geography due to restrictions from my previous employer, I don’t have the same network, and when I am calling on people for an assessment on a new candidate, they are often suspicious and guarded as they have the fear of repercussions.  Surely this is what references are for?  If we are going to dance this merry dance around the truth, we might as well save ourselves the bother and just close our eyes and hope they turn out to be a good egg!

Or, we could actually start treating references as an integral part of the recruitment process and benefiting from it.  As a hiring manager I would advise the following:

  • Be involved in the referencing process- call and speak directly to their previous manager and get a real assessment on their abilities, but also how to get the best out of them, how best to manage them etc.
  • Get an initial reference before making an offer- it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most recent role, but it can help weed out the people that you shouldn’t take too far down the process.
  • Tailor references for particular roles- i.e. assess the skills that are pertinent to that role, not just bland questions like timekeeping, reliability etc.
  • Ask the right questions, and don’t be afraid to then delve deeper.

Remember- you will be managing this person, and it will be you who has the headaches if they turn out to be the wrong employee!