Not worth the paper

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.

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2 Responses to Not worth the paper

  1. Graham Thomas says:

    Hi Susan

    Ah, the joys of references ….. and what you can and can’t say about those that you have had the sometimes dubious pleasure of working with.

    I’d guess the answer to your question of how useful they are is the same as for most things AML, they will just be one element of a range of checks that will hopefully help us to reach an informed decision (and provide an audit trail of those checks). Sometimes they might be of direct assistance but on many other occasions, it’s one of those things that has to be done but doesn’t really leave you any the wiser.

    One definite benefit though is that, for someone who is claiming that they have previous relevant experience for a role, an employer reference will at least confirm that the person has been employed in a given role for a given period of time … which at least makes it a little harder to get away with padding out a CV with exaggerated claims of past glories !!

    It did make me wonder though …. who could independently respond on behalf of TACL if someone sent in a request for a reference on your good self ??

    I do know the answer of course, your references could come from a very creditable source – your satisfied clients !!

    Best wishes


  2. Dear Graham

    As always, you hit the nail on the head: you must ask for and check references, but take the result with a pinch of salt – or rather, a good dose of AML scepticism! And I am occasionally asked for references, and am grateful to have a few clients who are always willing to answer any questions – although of course I cannot vouch for what they actually say about me!

    Best wishes from Susan

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