Even though I’m approaching the end of my second decade in the business world, I can still recall polishing off (and polishing up!) my very first CV.

As challenging as it was for a late teen to attempt to sell himself on paper, what I was marketing was my activity in my own words. If questioned by an interviewer, I felt confident I’d be able to back up all of my assertions. A larger concern came in the form of the need to supply references.

Back in 1999, employment references were “the done thing” when it came to CVs, especially for those just entering the jobs market. I knew that the success of some of my applications could rest solely on the shoulders of those who could make or break me by either denying or corroborating my claims of suitability. What calmed me was the knowledge that I’d always worked hard to impress the people I’d cited and was confident of their support.

That’s the beauty of employment references – something that has regrettably become a forgotten practice.

They started to be phased out in the early 2000s as the option of offering a negative reference was taken away from employers, deemed something that could prevent people from getting a job. Those listed as references could now only offer positive words (or decline to comment).

As the business world sped up with the advent of social media, referencing became something many hiring managers simply couldn’t (didn’t?) find the time to do – and I’ll hold my hand up on that one. It was a lot easier to “take the applicant’s word for it” rather than learn about a new hire by talking to his former boss.

On top of this, the ability to leave recommendations on a LinkedIn page, for example, enabled any potential employer to see what others have said about a prospective worker, eliminating the need to actively pursue any references.

There’s a fly in that particular bowl of soup – several flies, actually.

LinkedIn recommendations are a good starting point, sure, but they can’t be the be-all and end-all.

  • Many recommendations are left by peers at the same level as (or even below) the person in question, therefore lacking the level of weight that you’d get from a senior manager. 
  • Often, people trade “like for like” on social media – you write me a nice recommendation, I’ll do the same for you. So it’s no longer a genuine review system, it’s a popularity contest. 
  • Above all else, the jobseeker is now an active part of the process because he or she can choose to allow or disallow the recommendation – thus only allowing prospective employers to see what he or she chooses.

It’s individual brand management taken to the next level and, if it’s not challenged, will create a generation of workers who are unafraid of underperforming or, worse still, have little reason to even bother complying with basic and reasonable work-related requests.

So I say bring back the golden age of genuine, honest referrals from former employers!

I realise it’s unlikely to happen but that’s not going to stop me encouraging people to give it some thought because employement references from previous managers – be they written or verbal – can be hugely useful when making hiring decisions, saving companies and individuals huge amounts of time and money by making sure bad hires are avoided.

Here are three great reasons why all employers should seek employment references on candidates before making a job offer:

  • A reference can identify any anomalies in the candidate’s profile. 

I’ve recently been alarmed when looking through LinkedIn profiles of some of my former employees – either I was in a coma for much of the time they claimed they worked for me or they’re lying about their term of employment in order to look more stable/impressive.

If you found out that the candidate you’re considering isn’t telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in their CV or online profile, wouldn’t that give you concern as to which of his claims are genuine and which are posturing?

  • You interview two applicants and it’s a pretty close race. One seems marginally more capable than the other, so you go with him.

However, if you’d taken references, you may have found that the general feeling on your top pick was that he was “adequate”, “reasonable”, “acceptable” and other such non-committal words. 

If references on the other individual were glowing, with people praising his willingness to learn, work ethic and general all-round great attitude, wouldn’t that influence your decision and help you make a better call for your business?

  • The reintroduction of accountability.

If workers begin to see that how they perform in a job has consequences regarding their future employability, they’ll be more likely to work hard, be considerate of the business’ needs, and not simply give up on a job because it’s “too tough” or some other vague, soft reason.

It’ll make candidates think more carefully about their professional behaviour and that can’t be a bad thing on any level.

The other side of the argument… and the counter to that.

An immediate argument against genuine referencing is the one that lead to vague lip-service in the first place – “bad employment references could diminish a candidate’s employability”. Isn’t that the point?

If a person fails to turn up on time regularly, is a serial underperformer and general nuisance in the office, is that somebody we really want moving between jobs with impunity for this poor behaviour? If we’re not going to take notice of such things, why do we bother having distinction between degree levels, different grades in school exams? Work hard, do well, get good employment references, build a career. Don’t work hard, underperform, don’t get good references, struggle to build a career. If you remove the consequence of laziness or unwillingness to improve, you offer people an easy out – they’ll just move jobs when their time is up and so the cycle begins.  

The main argument I can see against genuine referencing is if a vindictive former manager says something spitefully to scupper the chances of a former worker who maybe left them in the lurch.

To that, I’d retort (perhaps optimistically veering towards naiveté?!) that most people simply aren’t that petty – and that the person seeking the reference is not going to base a decision on the words of one former boss. It’s all part of the jigsaw puzzle – and one faulty piece doesn’t mean the whole thing is useless. But applying Occam’s razor here, if more than one of the employment references throws up concern, you’d be foolish to ignore it. After all, as they say “there’s no smoke without fire”.

We all have fire alarms because we want to protect our homes and everybody within – so let’s use employment references as the metaphorical fire alarms for our hiring processes and protect our businesses!

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