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!



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I manage a small Housing recruitment business (www.greenacre-recruitment) covering the Midlands and South West Regions. Outside of that, I'm a dad of 2, a keen rugby supporter (knees don't allow me to play anymore) and cyclist (the knees let me do that!)

5 thoughts on “References- the biggest waste of time in recruitment?”

  1. What happens when somebody in your “trusted network” had a personal issue with one of the candidates you are asking about and gives you a “fair and reliable” input based on his personal feelings about this candidate?


    1. A fair point Alice, and one I’m acutely aware of. I suppose there are 2 parts to this- firstly the people I choose to be in my “trusted network” are exactly that-trusted, and they have earned that trust over many years. I have a good enough relationship that they would give me the full picture and allow me to make an informed judgement for myself. Secondly, I would always have a number of references on one candidate, which enables me to build up a picture of them and their abilities. I’ve been doing this job long enough to know that not every role can work out- whether that be down to being the wrong role, wrong environment, wrong time, or wrong people, and that can lead to a less than positive reference. That doesn’t mean they are a bad candidate by any stretch, and this is why I think it is vitally important to take referencing seriously, rather than another tick box exercise.
      I believe there is a job for everyone, and by being comprehensive in referencing candidates, I aim to mitigate the risk of taking on a particular candidate for my clients, and make sure that I am finding the right type of role for my candidates.
      Thanks for your comment.


      1. You will never be 100% sure of how “trustworthy” they are. They are not your brothers or close friends, they are just acquaintances that you have met in ocassion your professional venture.
        I have seen how some people destroyed the reputation of somebody just because of personal issues by giving poissoned references. And they seemed “very nice” and “trustworthy”. Moreover… they were the only reference some recruiters had for that company, so they could not double or triple check.
        You can be very serious, I don’t doubt it. But this is a bit dangerous. If the person is a “friend”, you might receive an input that is better than the candidate. If the person is a “foe”… the contrary.
        Companies should take more risks when recruiting. There is no perfect employee. And there are no perfect employers either.


      2. I agree with you- which is why I will always get a balanced view from a number of people rather than just one person. By the same token, no matter how close you are to someone, if they have such a grudge with someone, then you won’t get a balanced view, you’ll get their opinion, which will be skewed by their own feelings. That is the nature of references- it is one persons opinion, which is why it is essential to get a few peoples opinions, as you will then start to see a pattern of good or bad behaviours and can (hopefully) come to the right assessment.
        However, I don’t agree that companies should take more risks when employing staff- in fact, I think by taking the reference process more seriously, they should be reducing those risks. You may know of cases where people have lost jobs due to “poisoned” references, but that only happens when people are lazy in getting only one reference, which is wrong.


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