Job references: essential or pointless?

Job references used to be an essential part of the employment process: are they still?

Any employer has grappled with how to REALLY find out about the candidate behind their interview face. A beguiling option is to speak to previous employers who know them well for the “job reference”. But as many find out that’s far from fool proof too:

  • Unless entirely unavoidable candidates will not provide referees who are likely to be negative
  • Even the most honest (or vindictive) employer is unlikely to want to say something that might prevent them getting a job
  • Many reference takers ask the wrong questions or questions which deliberately or accidentally elicit the answers they want to hear because they want to fill the job
  • It’s just their opinion: just because the candidate performed to a certain standard in one employer has no bearing on their ability to do a different job in a different employer
  • Company cultures are all different: an employee can be a fish out of water in one employer (which might be reflected in a negative reference) but perfect for another or vice versa
  • Many departures are subject to compromise agreements which may prevent any references with any level of detail
  • Many companies’ policy is to only confirm dates of employment and job title
  • Referees have to be mindful of the threat of legal action: slander, libel or in a recent case “post employment victimisation”, as the Data Protection Act and GDPR gives them a right to see written references OR (and don’t quote me on this) notes taken during a verbal reference

In Prism’s experience references are meaningless: the only potentially valuable measure of an employee is whether he/she sticks around and does well and the best measure of that is promotion and or other verifiable achievements. One or two swift job moves are entirely forgivable but if a pattern develops there may be a problem somewhere.

A very vital reason for contacting former employers is to confirm dates and job titles: few employers have any problem with providing this information and in Prism’s experience there is, not infrequently, divergence between what’s on the CV, what’s on LinkedIn and what’s on a company’s records. But references as an objective measure/reflection or past or future performance? No.

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