With stories hitting the headlines recently about employees who turn out to be something of a liability (such as Jessica Harper of Lloyds Bank and Kweku Adoboli of UBS), and emphasis being placed by regulators on screening employees, the role of the humble job reference is once more under scrutiny. It is generally accepted that the names of referees will be supplied by all applicants, and that for those who are short-listed these references will be taken up and checked (with the warning that the referee should be contacted through a publicly-published address or phone number, and not through that supplied by the applicant, in case they have a criminal colleague standing by to impersonate the bereft former colleague). But just how useful are such references?
Chary of being sued for writing anything defamatory or ambiguous or subjective or just plain wrong, writers of references tend now to write only the baldest of facts: dates of employment; job title and general responsibilities; time-keeping and attendance; and (if it is not controversial) the reason for leaving. References cannot include any information on health problems, or criminal convictions. And you are not obliged to provide a reference at all (unless it is stated in the contract of employment that you will do so). Silence could speak volumes, after all. Alternatively, you could make imaginative use of our flexible language. You could say, perhaps, that “You will be extremely fortunate to get this person to work for you” [because I never managed it in the years they were with us]. Or “I am pleased to confirm that this person is a former colleague of mine” [and we still mark the anniversary of his leaving with a party]. Or “I can assure you that no person would be better for the job” [as having no-one in the role would be just as productive and immeasurably less annoying].
In smaller jurisdictions, of course, paper references are not the real story. Stories of incompetence, belligerence and crookedness quickly make the rounds, and dozens of glowing recommendations from scout leaders and vicars will be as nothing.