Last reviewed 2 December 2015

We could ask the same question about a tablet computer, says Bob Patchett. If it remains sealed in the box in which you bought it then it is quite useless, but charge the battery and switch it on, and you can convey and acquire a considerable amount of useful information.

Unfortunately, the question: are they any use? is asked about references from time to time because of a number of fallacies that we should demolish.

The law does not prevent the giving of references, though care must be taken. The Data Protection Act demands safeguards but these do not inhibit references. And the belief that you must not give a bad reference is misunderstood; you must not give a badly constructed or ill-intentioned report, but can make adverse comments if they are justified. What is important is that you have a clear policy about your use of references, who should deal with requests and what use you will make of them.

The suitability of a candidate

If you do not make use of references in recruitment, then you are missing out on a most useful way of determining the suitability of a candidate for a position. Even a skilled interviewer will admit that it is not possible to be absolutely sure that the candidate, an unknown person, has revealed everything about his or her capabilities, and even the most sophisticated tests can miss some unwanted characteristic. Also, consultants are regularly called upon to train people to perform well in interviews, which is good for the candidate but not necessarily for you. A well constructed reference, however, almost certainly will have been written by someone who has known your candidate for some time, has seen the work produced, has experienced his or her teamworking skills, and will have accurate information about behaviour, time-keeping and so on. References are invaluable.

You may of course have asked for a reference and received a reply showing dates of employment together with a vague summary of what the employee has done, which probably is of little value. So how do you obtain a truly useful reference or, even more to the point, how will you obtain the information that you require? The answer is to sit back and ask yourself, what do I need to know that the person I am contacting should be able to tell me?

Write a list of the areas of information that concern you and then convert this into specific questions to yourself, for example: “I need to know whether he or she is a good timekeeper” translates into: “Is he or she a good timekeeper?” “What are his or her inter-personal skills like?” translates as: “Does he or she relate well to other people?”

These specific questions should form a list of your concerns or worries that you may have with any candidate or that have emerged during a particular interview. If the former, then you certainly should have homed in on him or her during your interview leaving you with some that are fully satisfied and some for which you still require further information or confirmation. Once you are satisfied with certain areas, there is little need for further confirmation, therefore, turn your remaining concerns and questions into a reference questionnaire.

Request for a reference

Managers usually groan when they receive a request for a reference because they expect to find on examination that it is a standard proforma that calls for anodyne answers and that is used for all potential recruits. However, if they discover that it is a well-constructed questionnaire, clearly designed for a particular person, they are more likely to commit time to complete it thoughtfully. For this reason carry out two initial processes. First, delete from your list of questions anything that really is of little real value when deciding on the suitability of the candidate, and concentrate on the few points that really matter — and that will make a big difference to your recruitment decision.

Second, give a little information about what you do know of the candidate, perhaps as a series of bullet points, so that the writer can see that you have avoided the need to spend unnecessary time on them, and end it with the question, “Does this summary accurately reflect Mr X?” to which the writer may then answer, “yes” or “no” with space to leave a little more information. This leaves you with the critical areas, and here you need to frame open questions that, rather than produce a yes or no answer, require the writer to provide more comprehensive information.

The above question about timekeeping is probably best placed in the list of bullet points; if the person to whom you are making the request reads that the candidate claims to be a good timekeeper when evidently this is not the case, then he or she is likely to leap into print to put you right.

The second question about the candidate getting on with other people, however, requires a comprehensive answer, so think carefully about why you want to know it. Would it be, for example, because he or she has to influence people, has to work in a closely-knit team or has to deal with difficult people?

Phrase your question in such a way that it addresses not only the core issue but also requires the writer to give a detailed answer rather than a value statement. For example, “Can you describe the process by which Mr X persuades people to his point of view?” or “Can you give me an example of how Mr X has dealt with an irate customer?” You do not want simple yes or no answers in this area, nor do you want equally simple, “He performs very well in this area”. These tell you little of real value. In summary, therefore, decide what are the critical areas you need to cover, then construct questions that will address the heart of those areas, framing them in ways that cause the respondent to think and tell you what you need to know.

Areas of real concern

This may seem excessive, but in reality, you should not have more than half a dozen areas of real concern, therefore, responding to your request should not seem too great a task for the writer. Even so, do not hesitate from going back to the writer if you wish to have more information or clarification of some point. You may of course be rebuffed on the first or second time around, but if to minimise this possibility you dilute the questionnaire, then the response you get will be less comprehensive and therefore much less useful. So much will depend on the person from whom you have requested the reference, but he or she is likely to be impressed by your professionalism and clear efforts to make a response easier so, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Do be aware that you must have the candidate’s permission before seeking a reference, make clear in your request that this permission has been given, and make any job offer to the candidate provisional and subject to receipt of satisfactory references.

References are of great use in the recruitment process, but to make them really count you need to give thought to what you want to know and how best to have the writer give the information you need.