UK: READ BETWEEN THE LINES. - Employers have to watch what they say in job references.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Employers have to watch what they say in job references.

Why do recruiters bother with employer references? Seeking confirmation of the strengths of a favoured candidate may seem a pointless exercise. A good reference may indeed be just that; or it may be the duplicitous response of an employer seeking to offload a bad employee. And what can recruiters hope to learn when, for example, it is an offence to disclose a criminal record if a conviction is deemed no longer relevant?

'The reference is one of the least developed predictors of job performance,' says John Baillie, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). 'People don't like to say bad things, so it is limited to what they are willing to say.' That unwillingness has been made all the more acute in the aftermath of a defining legal case. In 1994, the House of Lords ruled in Spring v Guardian Assurance that an employer has 'a duty of care to exercise all reasonable skill when preparing a reference'. Further, it decreed that an employee may sue an employer for damages if the employer has been negligent. Now the plaintiff only has to show that he or she has lost a reasonable chance of employment and has thereby sustained loss. A High Court judge had earlier described the reference given by the plaintiff's former employer as 'the kiss of death to (Spring's) career in insurance'.

The consequences of the case are already being felt. Lawyers Stephens Innocent, for example, currently advises companies to: 'Make the reference as brief as possible, and put in an exclusion clause to the effect that no liability can be accepted.' And soon it looks as though there will be other factors to take into account; when finally implemented, the draft European directive on data protection will give employees the right to see records held manually, as is most personnel information. The clear implication is that employers might decide to say still less than they currently do when referring an employee.

'The days of the glowing reference are over,' says Jonathan Astbury, manager of the banking and finance division of recruitment consultants Harrison Willis. 'Now, references are matter of fact, and it is actually becoming very difficult to get certain information out of employers. We find the personal reference from friend or family just as important.' There are exceptions, however. Despite increasing strictures, some referees prove less than flattering. 'It's surprising how honest some people are,' says David Barrows, assistant director at the Public Appointments Unit in the Cabinet Office. 'Some actually say, "Don't touch him with a bargepole".' References are the first and critical step in getting onto the list kept by the unit, which passes names on to departments at their request. The final decision lies with the minister.

Most employers do it the other way round and take up references only when the job is offered to the applicant. The IPD's recruitment code makes it clear that current or previous employers must only be approached with the permission of the candidate. At this stage, however, most recruiters simply wish to confirm that the applicant really does have the qualifications and experience that he or she claims. On this score, computerised checks could upstage the reference in time.

But predicting the death of the reference would seem to be premature. Toyota UK, for instance, says it takes up 'all employer references at the end of the recruitment process', though 95% of the staff at its Derby factory have never worked in a car plant. Toyota says it is looking for people who can work in teams of four to five and switch tasks easily; it is these qualities, it claims, that will have come through in other jobs or training.

But with companies in the know restricting what they say to a minimum, experienced recruiters are becoming practised at reading between the lines. As ever, it can be more important to spot what is not said than what is. A number of jobs held for short periods - with the same employer - can prompt suspicion. In one such case, Harrison Willis elicited that the person in question was 'disruptive'.

But the reference can also reveal what the interview did not. This is especially true in the case of small companies, where one bad appointment can be a very expensive mistake, and its effects can echo throughout a business for a very long time.

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