When is it appropriate to request references?

Posted on 21 Apr 2016 by Ed Allnutt

Earlier in the year I posed the question whether employers are right to request reference details at application stage?  It’s something that we are regularly asked at Xref and a topic on which the answers vary depending on your viewpoint and often individual experience. I also asked whether it makes a difference if it is the employer making the request or a recruitment agency.

There are many ways to view this topic but if we take two simplistic approaches we find two different reasonings. Let’s take the example of a candidate who very rarely changes employer and is only ever enticed to move for a very particular reason or role. Typically this type of candidate will make very few applications, often only the one that they had the initial interest in. Furthermore these opportunities tend to come via a referral or some other indepth personal knowledge of the sector they work in. People from an agency background (myself included) often forget about this mechanism of finding a new job yet for many thousands of people in the UK alone it is the only way they know. In this instance there seems to be very little reason why the candidate would not offer reference details at the application stage of the process. The candidate is well aware of who may be using that information and there is already an implied trust built between the candidate and the potential employer.

Now let’s take a look at the serial mover who makes numerous applications on a regular basis to secure their next role. The dynamic is very different and it becomes very difficult for the candidate to retain any form of control over their information other than to decline to provide it. There is an increasing concern over how such information is stored and used.

Numerous people joined the debate with many sighting the regular misuse of reference (and other information) by agencies and employers alike. The underlying feedback was that applicants were more likely to provide referee information to employers than to recruitment agencies and that where an agency was involved it was more likely that referee details would be withheld until the offer stage of the process. We also had several employers join the debate, many of whom had very differing opinions of referencing. Some were using references at the front end of the process for screening purposes, for others it was an integral part of the selection process. Many organisations - particularly within the UK - use referencing purely as verification of employment.

Another interesting point raised by a commenter was that the recruitment process is increasingly a two way street, with the company often being interviewed as much as the candidate. Yet how often is it that a candidate requests a reference from an employer as to what it is really like to work within the organisation. Yes their are review sites for employers as there are for many things in life but what does a candidate really learn from these? Are those reviews genuine or “cherry picked” to promote the employer?

In conclusion there was no resounding answer to the question posed. It was too dependent on the specific role, applicant and employer. What did seem to be a common concern or complaint was how the data was used and stored. With more governance around the entire referencing process, most candidates would more freely offer up referee information.

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