As all employers will know; hiring the right people for the right position can be a very difficult task, and, as many will have no doubt found out, hiring the wrong person can be a very costly mistake. Therefore, as an employer, you want every possible chance to make sure you hire the right person for the job.

For this reason, the recruitment process can often be a long one. CV’s, applications forms, group interviews, solo interviews, aptitude tests and of course, references. Each of these steps can offer a different insight into the potential employee and a combination of these methods will lead to a far higher chance of getting employment right. This will benefit the company in the long term and save them the possible costs of a bad hire.

So what happens if you take one of these steps out of the recruitment chain? This is often the case with references – with previous employers either refusing to give references or sticking to the safety of name, employment term and salary, which can be about as useful as if the reference was not given at all.

You may think that references aren’t important, with all of the other parts of the recruitment chain, but getting the insight of a former employer can be invaluable. In interviews and application forms, potential employees can put themselves forward in any way they want, but a candid employer reference is the best way to get a clear picture of what your new employee would be like to work with.

So why aren’t candid references being given?

Why the Fear?

The main problem with references is the fear of being sued. The obvious reason this could happen is if a negative reference is given. This could open up the company giving the reference to a lawsuit over defamation of character, but equally companies fear being sued by the recipient organisation over good references if the employee does not make the grade at their new place of work.

One employee of a large IT company who did not want either themselves or their company to be named told me that their company would not allow them to give references. Instead the name of the former employee must be passed on to HR who can then merely confirm the standard name, employment term and salary. There are articles on the web advising companies follow this exact course of action to avoid any chance of a lawsuit.

What You Should Be Doing

The fear of being sued limits organisations from being candid in their references, but really organisations should be thinking of what this culture of limited references means to them, and their hiring. The true cost of hiring the wrong person is debatable, but when you tot up the cost of hiring them, maintaining them, dealing with any mistakes or misdemeanours, and potential severance packages it is clearly going to be a high sum, and limiting your references will only increase the risk of this happening.

As noted above, in interviews and application forms a candidate can potentially mask if they lack the skills, ability or drive for a position, or if they are simply not up for the job. But, by getting a truthful employment reference, potential employers can see exactly what the candidate will be like in the job. If you start giving candid references about your employees then maybe you will start to receive them, leading to a much more fruitful recruitment chain.

You would not want to hire someone you think is brilliant, only to find out that they are under qualified and unable to do the job, so it is a case of treat others how you wish to be treated. The fear of hiring the wrong person should always outweigh the fear of being sued as, if done right, you can still give an honest reference and avoid the risk of being sued.

What Does the Law Say?

According to UK law, references can include details of job performance and if the employee was sacked, as long as the reference is fair and accurate. Bare this in mind when writing your references and remember to always talk about job performance issues, rather than personality ones, as personality issues are more likely to be debatable and leave you open to legal action.


Overall you need to consider what would be most useful to your business. If you would value honest feedback about potential employees to reduce the risk of a bad hire, then start by giving them yourselves. Always be honest and stick to job performance and have the records to back up your claims and you could make the employment chain that much stronger and reduce the risk of bad hires all around.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: codnewsroom (Courtesy College of Dupage via Flickr (codnewsroom))

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