An important part of any recruitment process is checking references but it is surprising the number of organisations who fail to take them up in a timely manner or at all. References are a prospective employer’s opportunity to ensure that the information contained within a candidate’s CV or application form and provided at interview is correct. The value of references to a prospective employer is that they give a third party assessment of the candidate rather than the individual’s earnest attempt to show herself/himself in the best possible light. It also confirms that a candidate does actually have the work experience that they have claimed.
There is no legal obligation on employers to give references but if they do provide them then they must be true, fair, and accurate and not give a misleading impression. This applies equally to written and verbal references. Some employers will give full references and others will only give factual references.
Some employers can be reluctant to give references because of their liability in the event that the reference is later used against them. This has led to a growth in the provision of purely factual references. There is also an increasing tendency for an agreed reference to form part of any settlement agreement following a tribunal claim. This makes it harder to work out the true value of any reference provided.
In order to combat this problem, some companies have started using pro forma reference requests that ask specific questions rather than waiting to see what a company is willing to provide. These pro forma requests tend to include questions like:
- what duties did the individual perform;
- did they have any live warnings or ongoing disciplinary/capability procedures at the time of their termination;
- were there any issues with their attendance due to absence and/or punctuality; and
- Would you re-employ them?
These questions, as well as general questions confirming salary and length of service, can give a more valuable insight into how an individual performed in their role than a generic reference. They also serve as a check to ensure that the information provided by the candidate, or inferred by their previous job title is accurate.
Where employment is subject to references then these should be taken up before the individual starts work otherwise there is a valid argument that they were not a fundamental factor in the decision to hire and would not remove the entitlement to statutory or contractual notice if the contract is ended. It also leaves an employer open to claims that dismissal was not due to unsatisfactory references but for some other, inadmissible reason which opens the door to a potential claim.
A candidate should confirm that their referees have agreed to act in that capacity or if they think a reference will be a problem. If a company refuses to give a reference or will not complete a pro-forma then a prospective employer needs to consider if they are happy to proceed based on the information given by the candidate.