Are References Still Useful?

Posted on January 21, 2019 by Samantha Webster

The short answer is yes. The long answer is more complex and takes into consideration a number of different perspectives.

Firstly, a reference is just one tool to assist in the decision-making of a recruitment process of 30 steps – if the process is being done well. We read of large corporates no longer reading CV’s, instead using LinkedIn and measuring the key attributes of applicants as the basis of their hiring process with other organisations utilising video interviews instead of CV’s and initial face to face meetings in this technology-based and global environment we are working and living in. Industrial psychologists, HR Practitioners and Recruitment Professionals are constantly reviewing how to hire the best person for the job, so it is no surprise that the question of whether references are still useful is being asked.

Having worked with many different industries, company sizes and recruitment and hiring personnel in the UK and NZ for over 25 years, the expectation is that a recruitment company service offering has completed reference checks on offered candidates. It provides clients a safeguard of confirming a prospective employee’s previous experience and timeframe in a given role and how well they performed, or not as the case may be. Typically, the last 5 years of employment and/or the last two employers are requested as employment references but depending on the industry; criminal, credit and education references can be requested to ensure a broad range of checks have been completed.

From a recruiter’s perspective, the ability to offer a client references for potential hires demonstrates that a comprehensive, diligent and professional approach to offering recruitment services is being undertaken. To my mind, it should be a standard service offering and aim to demonstrate why a recruiter has selected and proposed the applicants to the client. Assisting organisations in seeing the value that recruitment companies can add to the talent acquisition and hiring process should be an industry goal.

I have rarely, if ever, seen a truly poor written reference. References written by previous employers are done so on the basis of agreement that it will be a positive reflection of a person’s employment and as a result can over-inflate their performance and abilities. Many a departing employee have been asked to write their own reference! As a result, and particularly in the UK, many previous employers only offer confirmation of dates of employment to avoid putting their hiring managers at risk of any legal threat.

The value is in verbal references. Upon gaining permission, being able to speak with a person who an applicant has reported to offers an invaluable insight into their performance. Non-written information from a referee is likely to be more candid than information being committed to paper, so a deeper understand of an applicant’s performance, abilities, relationships with managers and colleagues, strengths and areas of development are able to be elicited. A verbal reference can also be tailored to a specific role – a highly effective qualifying tool which is impossible when relying on a written reference. Not only does a verbal reference enable detailed information to be gathered on a past employee, it gives the recruiter the opportunity to develop an understanding of how that organisation hires personnel, whilst demonstrating how professional they are as a recruiter in qualifying information as part of their service offering. Finally, the verbal reference provides a valuable opportunity for the recruiter to start and develop a conversation which may lead to working with that organisation in the future. They say, if you want it right, get it in writing. However, with references today, perhaps we need to rely instead on the oral tradition.

Samantha Webster is a Founder/Director of Australasian Recruitment Company Ltd (UK) and HOME Recruitment Ltd (NZ) – recruitment businesses which transition the careers of Kiwis and Australians to the UK and then help them return with their valued overseas experience. A Member of the RCSA (Aust/NZ) and a Fellow of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (UK). A New Zealander with 28 years’ experience working in the London and Auckland recruitment markets and a passionate networker and connector of people to opportunities.