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!



Who should we be telling about #HomesforBritain?

Betsy the bus

If you are involved in Social Housing in any way, you will likely have noticed their is a bit of a buzz around at the moment. The Homes For Britain campaign has stoked the fires under many of those organisations involved in Housing and got them shouting about the main issue facing the industry today which is the lack of “affordable” housing.

The crisis we are facing-and it absolutely is a crisis, which is further compounded by the Right To Buy initiative that the Tories seem so fond of- is very real and will have a massive impact on future generations unless we take action NOW!

But my question is this- are we preaching to the right people?

I don’t mean to downplay all of the fantastic efforts from everyone across the country who have been running, cycling, walking and bussing along various routes to the rally in Westminster, promoting the message as they go. Or the creative advertising in the tube station at Westminster- it gets people asking questions and is a talking point, but is it targetted at the wrong people?

floor space

@ChurchieChat touched on it in his Wednesday Winge, and I’m inclined to agree with him- “Not being unkind but there doesn’t seem to be much public reaction – the pics I’ve seen so far could be from the Empty Spaces Agency.”  Has it really grabbed the interest of the nation, or just had handful of people who happen to be in the area at the time Betsy rolls into town?

I have said it before in previous blogs, that the Social Housing industry is very insular looking and very good at promoting its work internally. Benchmarking against each other rather than other industries/companies (see Paul Taylors interesting blog on this here) is a case in point. The majority of housing promotion is through twitter and is being followed by those people that are already involved etc, or through the industry press which has the same following.  Where were the residents, the local communities supporting the organisations that are doing this on their behalf?

Don’t get me wrong, its a good starting point, but I think its like having a fight with yourself in a dark room and then coming out and not explaining where you got the bruises.

The way I see it is that rather than lobbying the politicians, we need to be lobbying the general public and in particular young people. Housing has fallen down the political pecking order, because the people that need Social Housing don’t vote. The only way that politicians will start to take this seriously is if it will benefit them-i.e get them more votes. According to a BBC Newsbeat survey 23% of young people consider the lack of affordable housing a serious issue for them, compared to 11% of the “general public”.  That’s because it will and is affecting them and their lives!

The fly in the ointment is that only 47% of the young people intend to vote, so there is no real benefit to politicians to focus on it.  If we can empower and engage them, perhaps we can change this.  And if Housing becomes a real vote winner, you can guarantee it will get a seat at the top table again and finances will be funnelled into it.

The campaign message is sound, and the delivery of that message is also effective, but I think we need to turn around and face the people that actually can make a difference…the local community and not just those people in Social Housing or the political arena.

You look at how much money is raised today for Comic Relief and tell me that people in this country won’t act on issues that affect their local communities!

Engage with them, sell the message and watch them walk/run/bus WITH you next time!