Law guide: Employment

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Employee references

Employee references

Employee references

Checking references is usually done at or near the end of the interview process. Too often it is not done well or thoroughly enough. When you have reached the stage in which you are close to making a decision on a candidate, ask them to supply several references, one of which should be their previous employer.

Ask the referee factual questions about the candidate's previous or existing job, e.g. job held, length of service, timekeeping, attendance, main duties and responsibilities, attitude towards work and the company and, a key question, would they re-employ the candidate? If you are contacting the applicant's current employer, you should first ask the applicant if it would be acceptable to do so.

If a reply is not received within 10 to 14 days, or if there is some urgency, telephone the referee. The time and cost is minimal but could prevent a costly mistake. People are often far more candid in their comments during a telephone discussion than if asked to commit their views in writing.

Note that as references include personal information, you'll also need to consider data protection law – you'll normally be justified in providing or seeking a reference, but ensure you store and process it fairly.

Checking references

It may be time consuming, but thorough checking is the only way to be sure of the person you are employing. Even if the references are glowing, you must take the trouble to see if they are real - it has been known for applicants to fake references and qualifications.

  • Ask to see originals of training certificates and if this is the applicant's first job try if possible to speak to their college head or teacher.
  • Check CVs for gaps. It is easy to miss things out and try to cover up jobs that went wrong. You need to be ruthless in checking that, on the CV, the candidate has been completely truthful in giving names and dates of previous employment. Job lengths are often extended to cover mistakes - you need to be aware of them.
  • If the job involves working with children or vulnerable adults, then the employer should speak to two character references who are independent of the applicant's family and must also check if the applicant has any criminal records.
  • Remember when looking at written references that employers often leave out details that they were not happy with, sticking to things that they can praise. It is often only by telephoning that you can uncover the whole truth about an applicant's past performance.

Interviewing previous employers

When you telephone referees, make it clear that you are speaking in complete confidence, and as a fellow employer, you would appreciate their honesty. You must check that the written reference, (if you have one), matches what the referee tells you. It is useful to have prepared a list of questions or points that you want to discuss.

A straightforward list would contain the following questions:

  • How long did the applicant work for the previous employer?
  • What were the applicant's duties?
  • What did the previous employer best like about the applicant?
  • What did the previous employer least like about the applicant?
  • How did the applicant cope with emergencies?
  • Did the applicant take any sick days?
  • Was the applicant punctual?
  • What was the quality of the applicant's work?
  • Was the applicant honest?
  • Would you re-employ the applicant?

If you find that the referee becomes less forthcoming on certain points, you should press them if you feel they are holding any information back.

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