Handling employee references

Everything you need to know about references

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, Nov 10, 2021

Checking two references before hiring someone is a standard practice for almost every organisation. References help you weed out unsuitable candidates—who otherwise could cost you dearly in high staff turnover and damaged team morale.

References should be an integral part of your pre-employment checks for every new hire. Here’s how to approach them:

Requiring references

If you’re planning to check references for prospective employees, you should start by communicating this requirement to applicants in your advert, job description, or the application form. It is considered reasonable to make job offers subject to satisfactory references being received.

There are two kinds of references you can ask for: professional references from past or current employers, and character references from someone who knows the applicant well. Character references should come from someone with a credible profession, such as a teacher or lecturer.

Most employers ask for two references — one each from the applicant’s

  • Current or previous employer
  • Another recent employer, or a character reference

Treating the job applicant with consideration

Many job applicants prefer their current employer not to know they’re applying for other jobs until it’s absolutely necessary—that moment is often when you offer them the job.

Make sure, therefore, that you:

  • Only approach the applicant’s current employer after acquiring the applicant's permission
  • Make it clear at what stage of the recruitment process references will be sought—usually, this step of the selection process should be after the job offer (subject to satisfactory references) has been made

Don’t let references influence job interviews

Requesting references after making a conditional job offer also means that the references cannot influence your interview process. Reading a reference before an interview can taint your impression of a candidate. Leave references for afterwards.

Using a reference form to request information

When requesting candidate references, many organisations send a standard form or template to the referee. This method makes it easier for the referee to respond, and therefore more likely that they will respond. You can request precisely the kinds of information you want about your prospective employee.

Keep it factual

The information you request should be strictly factual. This is because if an employer gives a reference, workers have a right for that reference to be fair and accurate. References that contain unfounded conjecture could be open to legal challenge—which is why many employers will only provide facts anyway.

Information your reference form requests might include:

  • Job title, salary, and dates of employment
  • Duties and skills
  • Attendance records
  • Details of any formal disciplinary proceedings

What if a referee doesn’t respond?

Employers have no legal requirement to give references to departing employees. So it’s advisable to have a procedure in place for when references aren’t available — such as using probation periods for new employees.

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