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Reference myths – or are they?

Do employers feel they do not need to fear retribution when someone checks the reference?

At one time, writing a reference involved carefully crafting sentences that either damned with faint praise (don’t care whether this one stays or goes), praised to the skies (please employ them so we don’t have to) or said as little as possible (don’t want them to go); now, references often just state the person’s name, job title and length of employment.

Most people in the recruitment industry assume that fear of legal action is the reason for the move to fact-only references; however, the myth-busters have been out in force, telling employers they do not need to fear retribution when someone checks the reference. Are they right?

Can’t you be sued for telling the truth? – True or false?

This is not always true. The libel lawyers used to have the phrase “the greater the truth, the greater the libel”. Defamation applies more these days, and remember that protected characteristics in equality legislation may have an influence.

If you say “Mr X has had extended sick leave”, you may be stating a matter of fact; however, if he has a protected disability, such as suffering from cancer, he may feel discriminated against under equality law and may therefore wish to bring an action against you. Be careful.

Another thing to watch is internet advice that does not apply; for example, it is not always obvious that a website is American. If it is, its advice could well be wrong as far as UK law is concerned. Double check that you are taking advice relevant to our legal system.

Reference checking is a pain – true or false?

It is indeed, and it is barely worth it because it ties up the HR person making the phone calls. This is especially true if references are taken up before interview, which obviously increases the workload.

Huge numbers of employees are now subject to Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, such as all the health service, all carers, anyone in the public services who comes into contact with vulnerable people, everyone in education or social work, people in some charities and voluntary groups, and even families hosting foreign language students.

When you DBS check employees, a reference often dwindles in importance. If the previous employer says they were trusted and the DBS check shows theft, what are you going to do?

References are just ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – true or false?

This is true to an extent, as employers become more cautious about what they are prepared to say; however, there is always the art of reading between the lines.

“Ms Smith is always a bubbly and lively presence in the office” can mean “Never shuts up and no one else can get any work done”. “Mr X is always very relaxed” can mean “Mr X smokes weed in the car park”.

You get the drift. The satirical magazine Private Eye used to use the phrase “tired and emotional” to describe people who had over-refreshed themselves, and no one was in any doubt about what was meant.

The most prudent course is undoubtedly the key facts reference; however, if you are forced to write a longer reference, bland phrases and faint praise are almost certainly the safest way to go.

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