Busting the myths around reference checking


Reference checking has changed over the last 10 years in the UK.

We’ve moved from offering informative, opinion-based feedback about former employees, to providing only neutral references that simply confirm a candidate’s name, dates of employment and job title.

While there may be many reasons for this, the common assumption is that it has come about due to the fear or paranoia of a legal battle resulting from candidate claims of defamation, negligence or discrimination.

There is an industry-wide perception that the somewhat cavalier approach traditionally taken to reference checking is still the norm, and therefore leaves those involved in the process open to risk. It’s time to do some myth-busting.


Myth #1: Referees can be sued for giving a bad reference

As long as the information shared during a reference check is true, referees cannot be sued for the feedback they provide. The danger with this myth is that it leads to referees offering only positive feedback when they actually have some constructive criticism to share. Recent Xref research confirmed this, finding that 38 per cent of respondents said they would answer all questions being careful not to say anything that could be considered negative, if asked to provide a reference for a previous colleague.


Myth #2: Reference checking is time consuming and difficult to get right

Yes, the traditional phone-based reference checking method can be admin-heavy, frustrating and waste the time of already busy HR professionals. However, the process doesn’t have to be a burden. Using intuitive, technology-based solutions, organisations can conduct reference checking quickly with greater accuracy, consistency and ease.


Myth #3: Employers can ask whatever they want during a reference check

This myth causes real concerns for those asked to be a referee.

Unfortunately, although the statement is untrue, traditional approaches cannot guarantee that the person conducting a reference check won’t veer beyond their scripted questionnaire. The conversational nature of phone-based referencing, can lead to illegal questions being asked, which increases the risk of job applicants lodging discrimination claims.

Questions such as a candidate’s age, marital status, and sexual orientation absolutely should not be asked…but alarmingly they are. Using a consistent, standardised approach, which has been tailored to the specific role, will overcome the organisational risk of slipping into a discriminatory conversation.


Myth #4: All references are positive and therefore offer no insight

For organisations using smart reference checking approaches, this myth has been well and truly busted. References that offer assurance and security to both employers and referees lead to more honest responses being provided.

These references that look into both the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate will not only ensure the new employer makes an informed hiring decision, but will also reflect better on the organisation the candidate has previously worked for.


Myth #5: There’s no security around reference checking data

While it can be difficult to accurately record and securely store data collected via a verbal reference check, organisations must comply with data privacy laws. Although many data protection conditions are already in place via the UK’s Data Protection Act, the new EU regulation, GDPR, will put tighter stipulations around the way that organisations should handle and protect personal data, including how they keep records, ensure they have the right levels of consent to use data, what they do with it, and how they are protecting it while it is in their hands.

We have a duty as an industry to ensure the future strength of the British talent market and a critical way to do this is through thorough and robust reference checking, that sees the right people filling the right roles. In order to make informed, confident hiring decisions, we need to know about a candidate’s professional background – it’s only fair, therefore, that we help other organisations to do the same by disregarding the referencing myths and providing our valuable insight into their suitability.

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