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Reference Checking: A Referee's Perspective

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Recently, I spent 30 minutes on the phone with a referee, and although it was obvious that they were trying to be helpful, what eventuated was the perfect example of what not to do when providing a reference. After this experience (which really wasted time for everyone involved), we sat down as a team to discuss what qualifies someone as a useful and productive referee.  Although we’re constantly providing advice to candidates on the reference checking process, it became clear that there actually isn’t much advice given to referees themselves! With that in mind, it's hardly surprising that the task of acting as a referee can often be a struggle, even if it's just deciding whether or not you’re the right person to help.

If you’re likely to be called up to provide employment references at some point in the future, here’s how you can add value to the process, and why sometimes, it is important to simply say no to providing a reference.  

Being Prepared

If you’ve agreed to be a referee in the past, you’ll know the drill but whether it’s an email, a phone call or even a questionnaire, your state of mind is critical to the success of the exercise. We've all been in situations where we want to be helpful and try to provide details on the spot. However, the key thing to remember here is to not feel pressured to answer right away if you feel unprepared or rushed. 

To provide the most helpful and relevant information possible, it is also important to do your groundwork. A useful reference is one that is honest, as balanced as you can manage, and includes detailed examples of an employee's previous performance, so take the time to reflect and find out any necessary details ahead of time. Candidates can also do their part by keeping you up-to-date about their job search process and sending through job descriptions for the respective roles. This ensures that everyone is on the same page and gives you the best chance of providing an effective reference.

Understanding the Legalities

Are you aware of your obligations and rights as a referee? While it’s not illegal to give a bad reference, it can be so easy to stray into grey areas. This is why it’s critical to steer clear from any misleading comments, and make every effort to be accurate and truthful. On top of that, remember that you’re under no obligation to provide a reference if you don’t want to, but what do you do if that’s the case?

What if You Want to Say “No”?

Inevitably, there are situations when it’s best for all parties involved for you to say no to providing a reference. There could be many reasons behind this. Perhaps it has simply been too long since you’ve worked with the person.  In some cases, you might just not have anything positive to say about the candidate’s performance. Either way, it's unlikely the reference will prove very helpful.

If you find yourself in a situation where you don't want to provide a reference, it pays to be transparent with the candidate. Although it might not always be an easy conversation to have, there are some clear benefits in doing so. Not only will it save everyone's time and prevent embarrassment on the employee's part, but it also allows you to avoid any awkward conversations with employers. On top of this, it helps to ward off any 'hearsay' conversations about the candidate – something that often arises in situations you should have walked away from.

Closing Thoughts

Giving a good reference can be challenging but one thing is clear: accepting the task is a significant responsibility. By keeping some of these points in mind, you can ensure that you’re providing a useful, fair and accurate account that helps employers come to the best decision. For more information on the process of reference checks, check with your HR department or get in touch with me for a third party view.

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