Employment references - what value are they?


We issue approx 300 new contracts a month and generally request 2 references per new hire.  However, the response rate is only 19%, many references are factual only stating only the dates of employment.  6% of the 19% that responded were poor references. We have a 6 month probationary period where poor performers / attitude issues can be weeded out.

When considering how we could automate the reference process, we began to question the value of obtainng references versus the administrative chore it entails.  As I understand it, there is no legal reason in our business why we would have to obtain employment references. 

Interested to hear your views please.  Sounds couter intuitive but ..

Do you think references are necessary / provide valuable information?

Would you conisder not requesting references at all?

Is the administrative element justified when considering the value of the information gleaned?

  • Welcome to the community Jacqueline.

    The subject of 'tombstone' references come up quite frequently. I think the general consensus is that those type of references only provide evidence that the person has worked where/when he stated - or not!.
  • We have the same issues, low response rate and what we do receive does not give us anything. However, on the flip side we only offer confirmation of dates and title too.

    I personally think they are a waste of time, it is a administrative chore.

    When we do manage to speak to someone who will take our calls, 95% of the time they are very positive. However, I always think most people wouldn't provide you with someone's name that is going to give you a bad reference...…...
  • As an employer, I find them a chore to fill in. But I have been swayed into hiring people if I can speak to a reference. Its true that they are always going to be positive but open ended questions have always worked well for me. I like to ask things like 'what sort of culture would they suit?'
  • For us, legitimacy of education certificates is an important factor, as is confirmation of dates of employment and the role that the candidate was employed in. It is quite a burden, and can extend our sourcing timeline somewhat but we outsourced the reference checking process.
  • Even tombstone references will provide verification of a person's history and confirmation of their bona fides. Also, some insurance policies require employers to obtain references on employees in order to indemnify them against the consequences of identity fraud or false qualifications.

    As Claire points out, if you find the administrative burden too much, you can always outsource, but I could never recommend not taking references.
  • I've always chased and checked references after being caught out more than once.

    Dr John Andrewes is a perfect example where he was able to obtain senior roles within the NHS without the necessary qualifications he claimed to have after lying about a role with HMRC on his CV.
  • Hi Claire
    I think requesting for references is good governance practice and I will not recommend discontinuing same, it cross validates factual information about the employee and if diligently handled can provide few insights on the person’s attributes - for what it would be worth though.
    Requesting qualitative information on character might generate valuable information on the incumbent and serve the purpose of Better-fit roles to some extent
  • Working in a school environment it's a necessity, but having gone through the safer recruitment training it's quite eye-opening about how many people are prepared to lie about their experience and qualifications if they are trying to cover up something they don't want you to know. If you don't check, you rely on everything you are told being true.

    In many roles, I can see that's relatively low risk - in that you can weed out anyone who can't do the job in practice in their first weeks/months. The flip side is that anyone who is lying to get employed is demonstrating at dishonesty at the outset, and that's something that most companies would take seriously.

    So you may have, for example, an excellent worker who is proactive, positive and willing to work additional hours, and their manager is delighted - but was dismissed for suspected theft from their last place of work.

    In terms of getting results from references, I'd strongly suggest emailing the referee and then calling them to take a telephone reference. Most people will take a few minutes to answer a few questions, but will put off filling in a form for ages. [And call the main number for the organisation, and ask to be put through to the 'Head of Widgets' rather than calling a mobile number or direct dial.]
  • In reply to Annette Gleeson:

    That comes down to sloppy recruitment practices, you would be surprised how many companies/organisations do not check qualifications for example.

    HP got caught out over 20 years ok, they hired people to go on their graduate training scheme, on the first day another HR Manager decided to ask to see their degrees, turned out that none had a degree! Not sure why he didn't show them the door, but he actually hastily organised an A level training scheme for them!

    There are plenty of bluffers in HR as well, plenty of people without the qualifications that they claim they have, some with fake CIPD levels others who lapsed CIPD membership many years ago and are quite blatant about using MCIPD/FCIPD.

    The NHS is a good example where they have a Counter Fraud Service that audits personnel files and will check qualifications and if someone has lied will prosecute
  • In reply to Nina Waters:

    I don't like telephone references mainly because I've seen it abused at first hand, on one occasion where someone (in HR) gave an off the cuff reference via telephone which was quite bad, the reality was they didn't know the person and didn't even look at their personnel file, nothing more than a power trip to massage their ego!
  • In reply to Paul:

    Another good reason for managers being left to manage and HR not taking on what is not their responsibility to deal with.
  • In reply to Paul:

    Agree that's very worrying - but frankly bad practice in HR can't be a good reason not to have systems in place. So many of the processes that we're responsible for could be damaging in the hands of someone like that, but it doesn't mean that the system itself is bad. Just that he or she should be investigated!
  • I think they are good for confirming dates of employment and absence levels of individuals.
    Another thought that came to mind is that if you offered a role to someone who had left their previous employer by way of a settlement agreement then they would have an agreed reference anyway so may not be a true reflection of character.
  • In reply to Louise:

    I seem to spend my life trying to think of positive things to say about people in settlement agreements.
    Guilty as charged
  • In reply to Peter Stanway:

    References from Settlement Agreements are so easy to spot - glowing, detailed and fulsome in their praise. I have often advised people I am negotiating with to mutually tone it down so it stands out less.