· Features

Getting real about references

An employer reference that is merely a list of dates and job titles isn’t really a reference at all

But, unfortunately, this ‘neutral’ reference is fast becoming the norm, it’s of no real use to anyone and I believe it’s time we challenged it.

Unbelievably, some sources believe that in excess of an astonishing 30% of organisations - especially in highly regulated industries like financial services - have a policy of “name, date and title confirmation only.” Interestingly a lot of businesses that only provide 'neutral referencing' actually require more full and meaningful references for their own new hires.

As for the much hyped threat or worry about being sued for providing a ‘negative’ reference, that really is much more of an urban myth than frequent reality. In fact, there is only one legal requirement when providing a reference – it must be truthful. As long as it’s true and based on fact you can say what you like in an employee reference. Instances of individuals or organisations being sued for misrepresentation over references are far rarer than most people realise.

So, consider a ‘real-life’ parallel to the ‘neutral’ reference. You’ve finally decided to have that extension built so you’ll need an architect and a builder at the very least. How do you decide who to use? It should go without saying that the last thing you’d do is choose your contractors at random. Sticking a pin in a directory or simply ringing up the first local architect you find online isn’t a good place to start a major - and potentially very expensive - project. You want to ask questions, meet people, go and see what else they’ve designed. And an employer’s job reference should be no different. You want to know just who that person is and you want to know an awful lot more than just their job title and their dates of employment. As with the builder, there’s no indication at all of the quality of their work. What was their timekeeping like? How did they get on with colleagues? Team player or disruptive influence? All the key elements which help you make a decision to offer them an interview - let alone a full time job - are missing.

How do we fix it?

I suppose that one could argue that this levels the playing field but, equally, it also makes decision making that much tougher at every level. Whether you’re employing hundreds of people or looking for just one key individual, the lack of basic information is frustrating – as well as, potentially, costly. In short, as I see it, referencing is broken. The question then is how do we fix it?

I believe there are two ways to make it better. Firstly, we need to provide rigour around the process with some clear structure and, secondly, we need to make the whole process as simple as possible for the referee, candidate and employer. Even now the process often involves a printable form which has to be filled in by hand, scanned or even faxed back to the recipient. In an age where smart phones are ubiquitous, apps can replace that process and not only speed things up but allow the recipient of the reference to complete it when and where they like.

What goes around comes around

Of course, the ideal outcome would be the end of the ‘neutral’ reference. Accuracy in a reference is all important and, even in our far more litigious age, surely it’s possible to create a reference which actually communicates some practical, meaningful information on which an accurate judgement can be made. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s interesting that a lot of businesses that only provide 'neutral referencing' actually require more full and meaningful references for their own new hires. And, of course, they shouldn’t forget that in these days of an increasingly more transient and mobile talent pool, the ‘boomerang’ or returnee hire is not exceptional; and, given the chance, wouldn’t most companies rehire most of their leavers in the future? Right now, however, they’ve decided to leave so surely it would be a better, more pragmatic, long term approach to make it a smoother, easier and more pleasant experience for the leaver and their new employer?

Maybe we can’t eliminate the dilemma of the ‘neutral’ reference overnight but, thankfully – and at least for the more enlightened organisations who aren’t trapped in the ‘neutral’ referencing vicious circle - there are an increasing number of clever technological solutions for those looking to find new, more effective and efficient ways to solve the dilemma that is referencing.

Ed Allnutt is managing director EMEA at Xref