The Art of Giving a Reference
When we change jobs, we are all keen to be given a good reference to give to our new employer.
On the other hand, many employers these days only give a basic reference which confirms that the person worked for them for a specific period and what the job title was. This is only of limited use to a new employer as it gives no indication of how well or badly the employee performed in the role or how they got on with colleagues and/or customers.
As a result, there is a general belief that “references are not worth the paper they are written on”. This is a real shame when a little care could really help the recruitment process along.
Why do we only give out basic information?
Employers are frightened of horror stories of legislation. “We might get sued if we say something nasty” and so they feel obliged to say as little as possible and to keep it very bland. Additionally, many do not trust their managers to give references as they might inadvertently say something which may cause a problem for the Company.
Yet references should be a really powerful tool in the recruitment process. They should tell an employer whether the person is qualified to do the job and what experience they have; they should tell about any performance issues, or triumphs; they should tell of any misconduct or grievance; they should give an idea of the attendance record and any patterns of absence; they should tell about the relationships and whether the person is a good fit for the new role and the team they will be working with.
How can you write a “safe” reference, which also helps the new employer?
- References must be truthful and factual. The manager or colleagues may have an opinion – good or bad – about the individual, but this should not be included, unless it is based on fact which can be backed up with evidence. So an opinion that “he was always late, never arrived in work at the right time” would need to be backed up with a record of occasions of lateness, plus evidence of a conversation (or even formal action) with the individual pointing out their lateness and exploring the reasons for it and giving targets for improvement. Equally, if your opinion is that “she is the best sales person we have ever employed” then you should really be able to back that up with evidence of meeting high sales targets, or great customer feedback. You don’t have to share any evidence with the new employer, but it must exist so you could produce it if anybody questioned the truth of your reference
- Contrary to popular belief, references can include “bad” things – but again, they must be backed up by evidence. So if the person has a day off sick every other Monday, then it is fine to say so, as long as the attendance records exist which back this up. It would also be helpful if you could show that you have taken this up with the individual and made them aware it is not acceptable and have agreed a way forward to improve things.
- There should be no surprises. You cannot say that the person was not very good at dealing with customers, unless you have had a conversation (or even a formal meeting) with the individual and told them about this problem and a record has been kept, with a copy given to the employee. If dealing with customers is a critical part of their job, you would again need to show an agreed improvement plan.
- The employee may well get to see the reference. It is not unusual for a potential or new employer to show the reference they have received to the individual or even to ask their opinion of what has been said. Indeed, I suggest this is a good idea for an employer to do.
- If you follow all these rules the individual will not be able to show it is not fair. You might find it helpful to share a copy of the reference with them so they can see what has been said. They may ask you to change it, but you don’t have to do that. At least they will have seen you have been honest and they can take the opportunity to consider how to address any negatives with the new employer.
- These rules apply to verbal references as well as written ones. Employers sometimes feel they can get round the “difficult” issues by making a quick ‘phone call to the previous employer, rather than getting a written reference. This is risky as the person on the receiving end of the reference may well write notes or write the conversation down and it becomes as much of a liability as a written reference would have been. In any event, is is unfair on the individual to say something which they are not able to be party to or to answer.
- Some employers get round the problem by allowing managers to give “personal character references” but not official work sanctioned references. This is also risky as the receiving manager is likely to think it is an “official” reference and to treat it as such, so the risks are still there. It is better for the employer to produce the reference centrally, with input from the individual’s line manager – or to spend a small amount of time in training managers to write proper references (or show them this video!).
In a nutshell
Please produce and send meaningful references, following the above guidelines. It will be helpful for the employee, helpful for the new employer – and you may be grateful for the same courtesy when you are next recruiting. It could help save an expensive mistake.