Employment references - do they still have value?

31 October 2018

Newly released ACAS guidance on this subject has prompted us to consider – do employment references still have value?

In recent years, references have tended to become increasingly brief and factual and their usefulness has been brought into question. However, requesting and supplying references can still be a useful tool for employers who wish to check the information provided on a candidate’s CV is a true picture of their employment history.

A survey completed by YouGov Omnibus last year shows that 1 in 10 admit to lying on their CV; that’s potentially 10 per cent of your work force. Of those surveyed:

  • 35 per cent admit to having lied about the length of time spent in a job;
  • 30 per cent lied about their level of experience; and
  • 21 per cent lied about their previous job titles.

Why request a reference?

Even if the most basic, factual information is received, it can still be very valuable if a little time investment is made into checking the details received against the candidate’s CV and what they told you at interview. Were they really Marketing Manager for a year earning £50k? Or does the reference show they worked as a Marketing Assistant for six months on £25k? Some employers may look for clarification as to why a new recruit left their previous employer. This is all valuable information and should be included on the most basic of references.

Making a conditional offer

When you are offering a job, make it clear in the offer letter that their employment is subject to the receipt of satisfactory references. This is known as a 'conditional offer’. The norm is to request two, although if the CV shows only brief stays in the last two positions, you may wish to request more. It is normal to require that one should be from the current or most recent employer.

You will need to make a decision as to whether personal references are acceptable. This will likely depend on the nature and seniority of the role. For example, a graduate may have limited work experience and so may wish for you to request a personal reference from a lecturer.

What can I do if someone lies on their CV?

Providing you have made employment subject to satisfactory references, you may be able to withdraw an offer if the candidate hasn’t yet started work or terminate employment if the employee has already started work.

Of course, as with any dismissal, you should consider the reasonableness of your decisions and be consistent. Discuss any discrepancies with the individual and consider whether you are satisfied with the answers provided, or whether their references are in fact considered unsatisfactory.

When making this decision, trust and confidence will certainly be a factor. If a discrepancy is clearly an intention to deceive you may have grounds to consider ending the employment relationship.

Note: If you have made an unconditional offer (one that is not subject to certain conditions) you will not be entitled to withdraw an offer of employment and, once it is accepted, a contract is in place.

Do I have to provide a reference if it is requested by a potential employer?

No. There is no obligation to provide a reference, and if an employer chooses to do so, it is their decision as to how much information they wish to provide. The only exception to this is where regulation dictates otherwise, such as those regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

As always though consistency is key, so it is important for employers to have a clear stance to avoid claims of discrimination. If you provide a full reference for one and a short factual reference for another, it could be viewed as more/less favourable treatment.

Providing a bad reference

If you receive a reference request for an employee or former employee whose performance has been unsatisfactory, you should still respond. However, you should be mindful of the need to provide objective rather than subjective information and to only provide information that is necessary and relevant to the request that has been made.

Can an individual request to see their references?

Employees have the right to make a data subject access request. However, personal data held by either the provider or the recipient of a reference may be withheld where it is to be given or has been given in confidence for the purposes of the employment of the data subject.

However, it is important to remember that GDPR provides rights to data subjects regarding the processing of their personal data, including the right to withdraw consent, restrict processing and erasure. 

HR actions

  • Review your policy on requesting and providing references, which includes the following.
    • Who has authority to provide a reference?
    • How much detail will you request/provide?
    • Will you use a standard form? Is it GDPR compliant?
    • Do you use a standard disclaimer?
  • Ensure authorised managers are aware of:
    • what the company stance on referencing is;
    • GDPR rules that apply to references; and
    • the importance of objectivity rather than subjectivity.

If you have any questions regarding the requesting or providing of references, please contact Kerri Constable.