References – Do I Really Have to Review Them

In October 2017, you could be forgiven for wondering why there is an apparent disconnect between parties’ rights over references. Apparent. The UK Government advises “References: workers’ rights – An employer doesn’t usually have to give a work reference – but if they do, it must be fair and accurate. Workers may be able to challenge a reference they think is unfair or misleading. Employers must give a reference if: there was a written agreement to do so if they’re in a regulated industry, like financial services. If they give a reference it: must be fair and accurate – and can include details about workers’ performance and if they were sacked; can be brief – such as job title, salary and when the worker was employed. Once the worker starts with a new employer they can ask to see a copy of a reference. They have no right to ask their previous employer”. https://www.gov.uk/work-reference

I find this odd because at face value it seems conflicted. Why are financial services prefaced with “like” – does this lack of explicitness about other regulated industries – for example the NHS or military – infer that the latter could be exempt? The reference must be fair and accurate and “can” contain – no mention of what it “must” (or not) contain. And the employee has no right to ask their previous employer – what if the reference by the former employer had been written by a boss with a grudge and is full of lies?

ACAS repeats the Government’s line but further advises “A prospective employer must only approach the candidate’s current employer with their permission. Any request should include relevant questions regarding the candidate’s ability to carry out the role applied for and it may be a good idea to enclose a job description for the referee”. http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=5072. I’m not convinced this gets around the fact that the previous employer may have held a grudge.

Moreover, as at July 2017, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) advises “There is no detailed legislation specifically designed to deal with the general provision of references. However, some legislation many have an impact on different aspects and a list of the relevant Acts is given at the end of these Q&As (see Q ‘Legislation’). https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/recruitment/references-questions

So, does this last mean – I’m not being flippant – there is a degree to which the whole is a grey area and neither employer nor prospective employee has any comeback assuming the very basic criteria are met?
I think I’ve found the right candidate to fill an open position and now it’s time to check references. What’s the best way to get the information I need? Should I ask each person the same questions? What do I read—if anything—into the tone of their voice? And how do I overcome the fact that so many companies only allow you to talk to HR and confirm the most basic information? (I’m sure we’ve all experienced that).

Checking references is often seen as one small piece of the hiring protocol—the last thing I need to do before making a formal offer to a candidate. But would my viewing the process of securing and checking references as a legal formality be a mistake? I suspect so. If we assume my concerned cynicism is ill-founded, reference-checking often yields vital information about the candidate. The former employer is surely in a better position to give me an accurate estimate of whether the candidate will be able to perform well in specific circumstances and challenges, hopefully enabling me to assess how their strengths and limitations apply in my own company. The candidate might have settled well into a small research team in a 3-person sweet-making business in Bradford but not so well in the global Haribo framework.

If you ask for a reference in writing, it is going to be limited – based on all the evidence we have above. Your ideal is to book a call with the candidate’s current organisation. They may not wish that but, from experience, many are ok with it. Though it’s important to go into it knowing they’re obliged to give you nothing. It’s about managing the verbal situation. So, my best reference-checking protocols are:

Seek internal input before the call:

Have a conversation with everyone involved in the candidate’s recruitment. Ask them about any concerns, what they would you like to follow up on, what do you wish you knew more about. What you learn should form the basis of your questions for the referee. The goal with any reference check is to go beyond simply verifying facts. Consider who is best positioned to provide the context and insight you seek. If, for instance, you want to assess the candidate’s leadership skills, talk to former subordinates; for questions about the candidate’s strategic orientation, talk to former bosses. If you want to measure his influencing skills, talk to peers. I accept this is not always possible but much of it is if we make the effort.

Set the tone – don’t rush the enquiry:

Ask how the referee knows the candidate, to double-check that the person you’re speaking to is in a position to evaluate him. You need to establish whether the referee is simply an HR administrator with pre-packed generic chat; or, perhaps, the recruit’s boss or colleague. The fact that you may have asked for a call with a specific person doesn’t mean it’s not been passed to HR. Start the conversation with the referee from the premise that the candidate will make a good employee. Emphasise the value of having a reliable reference. Say that you know, of course, that no candidate is perfect but that it’s useful to know as much as possible about the applicant to confirm whether they have a good chance of success in the job.

Describe the job:

Be specific about the role you’re trying to fill and its challenges. Ask the referee if they have seen the candidate perform in similar circumstances. Ask about his/her exact role and responsibilities, what did he/she do and how did he/she do it. If the referee has not seen the candidate in that context – the referee is the HR administrator – perhaps broaden the question. Ask something along the lines of how success is measured in the candidate’s company. Tell the referee what the candidate will need to be effective in the role you’re offering, then listen to what the person has to say. Don’t interrupt or give the referee the answer you want.
Ask open-ended but specific questions:

Avoid things like what can you tell me about the candidate. It’s vague and thereby allows vague answers. Try using information gleaned from the candidate during the interview process. Say something like, “I understand X helped implement a new IT system in the purchasing department. Can you tell me more about his role in that?” Or, “I understand your department was under a lot of pressure because of the recent company buy-out. Can you give me an example of how he got dispirited employees to continue work with him despite their future being in jeopardy?”. As the conversation progresses, you can hint at your anxieties and concerns. For instance, “X doesn’t have a lot of experience managing people, how do you think he’ll do as a supervisor?

Stick to the facts:

Focus on what the referee is saying rather than how they’re saying it – don’t read too much into their tone of voice or inflection. You don’t know whether the person you’re talking to is always monotone, or is just having a bad day. The bulk of your judgment should be based on facts; you can’t make emotional decisions. There are, however, red flags. It’s a bad sign, for instance, if the candidate did not inform the referee that you’d be calling. If the referee says something like, “‘I’m really not the right person to talk about him,’” that, too, does not reflect well on the candidate. In the uncommon event that your understanding differs from what you hear from one or more referees, ask the candidate to explain. You may find that it is nothing to be concerned about.

Check soft skills:

Ask referees about the candidate’s soft skills, and social and emotional-intelligence-based capabilities. For instance, “what can you tell me about X’s self-awareness and self-motivation? Is he empathetic and flexible?” There are no right or wrong answers – indeed, in CVs I am always wary of soft skills since they can’t be measured; but that’s different from having a conversation with someone who knows the applicant. You will hopefully learn whether the candidate is a cultural fit for your organisation. Try to understand the type of culture that this candidate has worked in and his ability to learn and adapt to a new one. Some organisations are collaborative, while others are more competitive.

Find ways in:

When speaking to a referee proves challenging—if, say, you can’t contact them directly – perhaps in a huge organisation such as the NHS where the candidate is almost certain to be unknown to the person you’re speaking; or you’re talking to HR and only getting basics about the candidate’s title and dates of employment—consider alternative ways to get the information. Perhaps you contact people in your network who may also know the candidate (my partner’s son was recently employed by a bank where his brother works so there is an “in”) or know someone that does. You or your colleague may know – or be able to find or from a friend of a friend – someone who can tell you things. Look at professional associations, personal networks, past employees, and LinkedIn to see if there’s any overlap.

Principles to Remember:

Do

Gather feedback from all the people who interviewed the candidate and focus on one or two concerns you’d like to follow up.

Ask specific questions related to the role you’re trying to fill and its challenges. Avoid broad questions such as, “What can you tell me about him?”

Listen to what the person is saying and don’t interrupt or supply the answer you want to hear.

Don’t

Show any scepticism or negativity toward the candidate—the referee will probably be less inclined to answer out of loyalty to the candidate if they know him, or their organisation.

Read anything into the person’s inflection. You don’t have enough context to judge a stranger’s tone of voice.
Be hindered by HR policies that disallow reference checks. Seek out other sources of information such as professional associations, past employees, and LinkedIn to see if there’s anyone in your extended network who can enlarge your understanding of the candidate.

Written by

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

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