On one of the Human Resources (HR) groups I participate in online a recent question was asked:
What are your views on giving job references?
HR managers gave a number of comments around the difference between factual information:
- Job title
- Start & finish dates
- Hours worked
- Number or volume of sickness absence
Providing free text information on job references
Many job reference requests ask for comments about attitude, performance etc. some ask referees to grade people on competency scoring grids.
But what is the point? Does it really help? is it more of a distraction than a help?
A typical scenario
An employee takes on a new job. Like most jobs, people looking to develop their career will apply for jobs a little outside their comfort zone, or competence area. We have all done it. At first the ‘honeymoon period’ helps. A few mistakes as you start to understand the role, the company, the culture and of course the performance requirements. You are used to a supportive manager. But your manager here is a micro-manager. as time goes on you are performing well in all but one area. The one area of development that you are (for whatever reason) struggling with. It becomes the one development area that is regularly on your appraisal. Your performance is OK… but not great. What you need is more support, but your manager is incapable of giving it. For unknown to you, the ability to support & develop has been their development need on their appraisal for 5 years!
Then some 2 years later you apply for another role. You get offered the role subject to references. The manager gets this request, and the only think they put in the free text box is your weakness. The employing manager sees this as the number 1 skills they needs. As a result withdraws the offer.
Is this fair? is it right? Has the employing manager missed the most talented employee on the judgement of a micro-manager?
What if your development need was not actually your weakness, but the inability of your line manager to develop you in context?
Now everyone loses. the new employer has to take the second person on their list. Your current employer now has someone that wants to leave.
What would you want your former employer including in your job reference if this were you?
What was the real issue?
Was the reference a reflection of the candidates performance? or was it a reflection of the culture and context of the job? Mistakes happen. For whatever reason employers change, jobs evolve. something that once worked well no longer works. Maybe the job the candidate is applying for is the perfect fit.
What is the solution for job references?
In reality when you recruit it is YOUR responsibility to check out skills and culture suitability. It is your decision. Relying on the comments of a third party for such a key decision is a sign of weakness and being unprofessional.
Sure use the reference to check accuracy. have you been told the truth? The factual references can help you validate your decision, not make it for you.
What answers to give when providing a job reference
If you are giving an employment or job reference as a manager or employer, just confirm the facts. Keep it simple. It is quick for you and best for the candidate.
If you are giving a personal reference, then giving strengths and opinions is what you have been included for. It is a different situation.
Job reference templates
Many inexperienced managers or larger firms will have elaborate job reference templates. You can guess the type. Those that ask for everything including the candidates inside leg measurement!
Well from our perspective keep things simple. Only fill out what you need to do to confirm what the person did and when they were with you.
Questions managers & HR consider:
what to ask when checking references for employment – keep it simple, use the data to validate only
questions to ask when checking references for employment – again, only ask employer references to confirm job role, key dates and levels of absence
Suggested questions for a reference telephone call – again keep it short and simple. What are you willing to share about your employees? never ask more than you are willing to give yourself!
Questions employees often consider
What do references ask for – lots of things, but just be honest and there is nothing to worry about.
Checking references questions – lots of firms do (some don’t at all), some use third party providers to check qualifications you are claiming etc.
Personal reference questions – these tend to be asking about you as a person. outgoing or quiet, hobbies, etc.
Job reference requests should help you check and verify data you know about a candidate, not be the thing that seals or breaks the deal.