As a Hiring or HR Manager you’ll know the scenario: after a frustratingly difficult candidate search (there’s not enough applicants! There are too many applicants! No one’s responding to email or telephone correspondence!) you finally ace the brief and are sat opposite the perfect candidate for the role; someone who has the right skills, drive and personality to suit your business.
Cut to the job offer being accepted and you just lifting that celebratory beverage to your lips when the dreaded news arrives: you’ve received a poor reference or they can’t get a reference at all. What do you do?
Why can’t they get a reference?
Let’s start with the latter. Typically, it’s not a simple yes/no question and there are many reasons that a candidate can’t get a reference. Here’s a few possibilities:
- It’s their first ‘proper’ job role. A Graduate fresh out of university or college may not have worked in a full time role before. They could possess the skills you need but can only obtain a character reference from a teacher or may have only completed voluntary work, work experience or a Saturday job.
- The previous company has closed. Sadly, a more common factor after this tumultuous year: companies who have folded or closed have no requirement to complete references for their ex-employees. It all depends on the business, a lot of the time you’ll get in touch with a sympathetic manager who will want to help their staff find a new role as much as possible. Sometimes that person may just want to distance themselves from the company or could be embroiled in more serious matters where a reference request can slip down their inbox very quickly though.
- The company is overseas. This can be tricky depending on the timeframe you have to obtain the reference. If done in writing, this can be a more expensive reference to get as well as a lengthier one and can sometimes come with the added factor of a potential language barrier either side.
- A company refuses to provide a reference. There isn’t a legal requirement for a company to provide a reference (unless it’s in the employee’s contract) so this could be a situation you find yourself in. It’s rare and commonly you’ll find it’s just slipped down someone’s in tray. A lot of the time, even if an employer can’t provide too much enlightening information, they’ll at least be able to provide dates of employment if you express your need for this. If you do run into an employer who refuses to give a reference then it’s worth probing the reasons why. They may have too many to complete or no one specific person who will complete them. Should this be the case it could suggest a high turnover and change the circumstances around the candidate’s employment there. Sometimes it could be that they feel they have nothing positive to say about the candidate in question which of course presents major issues.
What to do in the above instances?
So if you run into any of the above, what should you do?
For many larger scale employers, their processing will be simply bulletproof and oftentimes will refuse a start unless certain parameters are met. This is simply to maintain quality, consistency and covers them suitably moving forward but for smaller firms this isn’t such a clear issue.
You should obviously consider the candidate’s situation; perhaps if you can’t get a certified opinion of their work ethic, performance levels or reliability then you could offer a work trial or an extended probation period in order to get an idea of how they would suit the business?
If you’re hiring someone who has most recently been a student then their grades, and ability to hold down a job on the side, should this apply, will often show that they are hardworking and driven.
If the company that you are dealing with are proving difficult this may in itself lessen the value of the reference you’re obtaining and you should consider the differences in the job role, the company culture and the HR processes.
What if I obtain a bad reference?
This is the biggest bugbear of them all: what if the returned reference is in any way negative? Whilst certain parameters have changed recently to ensure references have to be just and fair, the referee is often grading candidate skills across a range of traits and one of these may ring the proverbial alarm bells.
Once again, it seems rote to say that the situation is different for everybody (of course it is) but it’s certainly worth asking the candidate their own opinion on a situation. If, as an example, a referee marks an illness record as poor then why is this? Did the candidate have an underlying health condition at the time? Does the companies policy differ to your own in regards to absence and lateness?
In a case of gross misconduct, what is the dismissal for? Again, different employers will have different policies and tolerances of certain behaviors but if someone’s shown gross negligence or been offensive or violent then the list of excusable factors becomes increasingly smaller.
It’s also possible though that people can change. It’s important to judge the candidate fairly and offer people a chance, but also relevant to assess a former manager’s opinion and use this as a factor in your decision-making.
Getting references from recruitment agencies
It’s worth mentioning (as we plenty of firsthand experience!) that references from recruitment agencies can differ from those you’ll receive from other employers. As an agency, it is our responsibility to complete referencing for candidates who have completed work through ourselves on a temporary basis (it’s part of our ongoing service to our clients.)
There are positives and negatives to this – one huge plus point is that we are more than aware of how important the referencing process can be and pledge to return a reference within 24 hours of it arriving at our desk in emailed or paper form.
However, as a candidate will invariably be reporting to a client of ours every day they work rather than ourselves, it’s often harder for an agency to comment on finer details regarding performance and general demeanor. We’ll always have access to a worker’s completed dates, and by association any absences due to sickness or holiday etc. but often can only remark on how they interact with the agency directly rather than with their work assignments. Having said this, a candidate’s dealings with the agency often simply parallel with how they are in a work environment.
As a candidate, what can I do?
You might be reading this knowing that something above relates to you actually looking for work. Whilst it can be a nagging doubt it’s important to continue along the path of looking for employment with as focused and determined a mindset as possible (see some of our other blog posts on looking for work, preparing for interviews etc.)
The actual factor of getting a reference is rarely the candidate’s responsibility, you can help in the process of course, but it is the company you’re applying to who will send out, and subsequently chase up and process, the forms.
It comes down to ensuring you’re transparent and open with prospective employers, whilst also being as respectful and dignified as possible when leaving past ones. If a health issue or personal matter affected your last employment, disclose this at your earliest opportunity. If you are leaving a company, do so in the correct and proper manner to ensure you receive as strong a reference as possible (we’ve got a blog on this too.)
Note down the relevant person in your previous organisation who will complete references and approach them directly if you wish. Ensure a character reference will be completed by someone who knows you well and understands the role you’re applying for and what skills may be most worth highlighting.
Your application and interview will still be the most important part of the process so it’s important to focus on this.
Referencing is another part of the application process that, to many, only amounts to being something that takes time and can be a nuisance.
Remember this when you’re sending out or completing a reference: someone at the other end could be deeply affected by the consequences of one being missed, delayed, completed incorrectly or negatively.
As painful as it can be, many employers will only require dates of work being confirmed to complete their admin’ process so a small action could mean a great deal to someone!
The actual answer to the question of whether to hire someone with a bad reference is a tricky one but the reference should be a factor to push a decision one way or the other rather than the sole reasoning for rejecting a candidate.
How much of an influence do you wish an outside opinion to be on your own recruitment process?
About The Author
Daniel Oldfield is the Branch Manager of The Recruitment Lab Brighton and has worked in Recruitment for six years. He has a degree in Journalism and considers himself a film and music buff. He also runs The Brighton Film Club review site in his own time. If you would like to know more about anything written in this blog or would like to express your thoughts just contact Dan through The Recruitment Lab website.