References - a waste of time?

  | James Innes

Many job offers are still made to candidates subject to references. However, increasingly, this may become a thing of the past. People are now scared to give honest answers because of the fear of subsequent legal action from aggrieved candidates who fail to get a job on the basis of their reference.

And it goes the other way too? What happens if you give a positive reference to an ex-employee which the new hirer employer relies on to make a job offer to a candidate, only to determine afterwards that it was a bad hire. Does the old employer hold a duty of care to the new one to provide an honest assessment of a candidate?

Given, therefore, the legal minefield facing them, companies will often provide only the bare minimum now when providing references for former employees – length of service, positions held, salary. According to some estimates, up to 80% of organisations do not allow employees to give out detailed references.

Of course, many companies who practice this policy, will realise, in turn, that former employers are as likely to be as constrained as them when it comes to supply candidate references. They may choose to forgo the reference route altogether, and use other methods, such as a search of their social media footprint – such as LinkedIn and Facebook – to research the background of a candidate.

Arguably, the fact that third-party references are now unlikely to provide an honest assessment of a candidate’s true abilities and character are one reason so many jobs are filled through the hidden job market and are never advertised. Accessing candidates through personal networks means you have a much better chance of finding somebody who has either worked with them directly in the past, or, indirectly, knows somebody who has first-hand experience of them.

In the absence of meaningful professional references, personal references may be more important. If this is the case, choose your references wisely. A professional – lawyer, accountant, doctor – is likely to carry more weight in a potential employer’s eyes than an old family friend, however well they know you.

In most cases references will only be requested once a job offer has been made. They should never be included in your CV, as they use up valuable space, and may never be used.

If a new employer still insists on references, make sure you contact your potential referees in advance. Try and find out what they are likely to say about you, and only choose those who intend to be positive. Of course, they could always lie and tell you one thing and the prospective employer something different – but that’s why you choose them with care!

Due to changes in the legal environment, the weight placed on references is definitely less than in the past. Employers know that there is comparatively little information that can be gleaned from them, and that there are now better ways of researching the background and character of a candidate. However, if you are asked to give a reference, determine in advance who the best options are, and what they are likely to say.

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