As a Hiring or HR Manager, you’ll know the scenario: after a frustratingly difficult and longer than expected candidate search you finally ace the brief. You find the dream candidate for your role; someone who has the right skills, drive, and personality to suit your business.
Cut to the admin bit…Job offers, contracts of employment, and the reference checking….the easy bit right? Well not so if you receive a bad reference or are unable to source a reference. What do you do?
Why Can’t a Reference Be Sourced?
Let’s start with the latter. There are many reasons why a reference can not be sourced. Here are 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 at best a casual Saturday job.
- The previous company has closed and no longer exists.
- The company is overseas. Language, geography and timezones can be very real barriers.
- 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). It’s rare, but it does happen!
What To Do in The Above Instances?
So if you run into any of the above, what should you do? Not having a reference does not mean a job offer needs to be automatically withdrawn.
Go back to the drawing board for a second and consider why you want the reference? Did you want to double-check the dates of employment? Just make sure the length of service documented on the CV is correct? In my experience, this is the most useful insight a reference can provide. So without a reference to document this, you need to work with the candidate. You need the candidate to source documents such as payslips, contracts of employment, bank statements…anything showing evidence of paid employment and/or engagement with a firm. If a candidate is unable or unwilling to find these things then some alarm bells should sound.
Certainly, in the case of companies that no longer exist, a swift google search could provide some possible answers of when things came to an end. Take this with a pinch of salt though. When a company makes redundancies or closes – it is a messy affair. What is documented at companies house may not reflect what happened to the average employee.
Knowledge is power and all that. Large employers seem to know all the right moves when they can not source a reference. In contrast, smaller employers seem stuck in the headlights and are unaware of their options. So use the above information to your advantage.
The Reference Lacks Detail
Maybe the reference has been returned, but it lacks detail. Were you hoping to grasp a candidate’s inner workings? Performance, drive, team-work, communication, absence, and what they like for lunch?
In short, you are out of luck. Many employers have a policy of providing just dates of employment and job titles.
The reason for this is the references provided are consistent, without emotion, and easy to produce. A reference may be viewed by many of us as an act of gratitude for ex-employees, but it is a transactional HR service. It just needs to be done efficiently and quickly.
In this instance, it is the case that you need to temper your expectations. You have a reference, it confirms certain things…and that is as good as it may get!
What if I Obtain a Bad Reference?
This is the biggie! 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). Firstly, rationalise the situation. Really, how bad is the information you have in front of you? If you are concerned 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 it’s also relevant to assess a former manager’s opinion and use this as a factor in your decision-making.
Can You Give A Bad Reference?
A quick housekeeping point. Yes – employers can give a bad or negative reference. It has become a slight urban myth that bad references are never given.
Above all else, a reference must be true and accurate and a former employer must have reasonable grounds for their belief. In the event, a bad reference is given with no reasonable grounds and/or evidence then the former employer could face legal consequences. But be under no illusion – bad references happen.
References from Recruitment Agencies
It’s worth mentioning (as we have 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 quickly once it arrives at our desk.
However, it’s often harder for an agency to comment on finer details regarding performance and general demeanor. The candidate is reporting to and managed day-to-day by our client. 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 mirror 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. 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 reference.
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 an “admin” task. But, when that admin process fails to deliver or delivers unexpected results – many employees (especially the small ones) are left unsure of what to do.
The actual answer to the question of whether to hire someone with a bad reference is tricky. Not hiring someone on the basis of one bad reference without investigating is probably rash. But – how a candidate conducts themselves during your follow-up and subsequent questioning will give you the answer.
About The Author
Daniel Oldfield is the Branch Manager of The Recruitment Lab, a Brighton recruitment agency. He has worked in Recruitment for six years. He has a degree in Journalism and considers himself a film and music buff. Daniel 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.