Employment references; we’ve all changed jobs at one time or another so the chances are you’ve been asked to supply them. And, if you’ve ever held a management role it’s equally likely that you have had to respond to a past employee’s request. But when is it appropriate to obtain or ask for references, how should it be done and who can you trust?

In our business it’s something we are regularly asked so, earlier in the year, I posed this question to candidates and employers alike. The response was very interesting with people holding very different and strong views on the subject.

Firstly, when it comes to referencing there is no norm. Take the retail sector, several of our leading retailers in the UK – who each recruit in the thousands per year – don’t take references before the new hire has started. Other retailers don’t reference at all. That’s thousands of people with access to tens of thousands of transactions and no one has looked into their previous employment history. On the flip side we have the financial sector which seems to operate on the basis that so long as the applicant hasn’t been caught doing wrong in the past they must be fine. In this sector background checks and screening are a must. You simply can’t work in many roles without a criminal background check and credit check. But when it comes to referencing a simple “yes they worked here between those dates” is sufficient. Recently the FCA commented that this level of information is not enough and has suggested radical change.

Is there a best time?

There are many ways to look at the timing of references. Let’s take the example of a candidate who very rarely changes employer. Typically, this type of candidate will make very few applications and opportunities tend to come via a referral or personal network. This mechanism of finding a new job is often overlooked by recruiters yet for many thousands of people in the UK it’s the only way they know. In these instances, there is little resistance to providing reference details at the application stage. The candidate is well aware of who may be using that information and there is already an implied trust built between the candidate and the potential employer.

Now let’s take a look at the serial job hopper who makes numerous, often spurious applications. It becomes very difficult for the candidate to retain any form of control over their information other than by declining to provide it and there is an increasing concern over how such information is stored and used.

Then, of course, we have the majority who fall within these two extremes.

Numerous people joined the debate with many citing the regular misuse of reference (and other information) by agencies and employers alike. The underlying feedback was that applicants were more likely to provide referee information to employers than to recruitment agencies and that where an agency was involved it was more likely that referee details would be withheld until the offer stage of the process. We also had several employers join the debate, many of whom had very differing opinions of referencing. Some were using references at the front end of the process for screening purposes whereas, for others, it was an integral part of the selection process. Many organisations – particularly within the UK – use referencing purely as verification of employment.

Two-way street

Another interesting point raised by a commenter was that the recruitment process is increasingly a two-way street, with the company often being interviewed as much as the candidate. Yet how often is it that a candidate requests a reference from an employer? What it is really like to work in the organisation? Yes, there are review sites for employers, as there are for many things in life, but what does a candidate really learn from these? Are those reviews genuine or ‘cherry picked’ to promote the employer?

The question started to move away from when to take references and instead to how to use them, what information do we want from them and what they say. A well thought out and delivered reference request was largely agreed to be appropriate at any stage whereas verification was seen to be more of a ‘check’ carried out after offer.

On the question of timing there was a leaning towards references being requested at offer stage but an increasing number of employers see the value of initiating references earlier in the process. The question of timing was largely dependent on the specific role, applicant and employer. What was a common concern or complaint was how the data was used and stored. Employers were also concerned about the candidate journey and how the referees were treated through the process.

In conclusion, there was more concern over the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ than the ‘when.’