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Posted 6 November 2012
by Martin Laver

What is a reference really worth nowadays?

Once an essential ingredient to any future employment, as recent watchers of Downton Abbey will attest, references have now all but died away.  What employers have been left with is a hollow shell of its former self. A reference was not only valuable for an employee, but also a prospective employer.  It enabled one to judge not only the basic ability of an employee but also how they were regarded generally.  Employers could also unearth the metaphorical skeletons.

What happened?

Risk.  References were incredibly valuable pieces of paper to someone’s employability.  In a number of instances, that value was exploited by a disgruntled employer, or mistakes were made in the preparation of the reference.  Both situations led to disappointed applicants for posts being turned away and court cases followed.  As an example, a reference for an employee who left with an unblemished record said “would not employ again”  for a reason best known unto themselves.  Any prospective employer reading it would think something was amiss and approach with caution.  Equally, a glowing reference given about a hopeless employee (perhaps to speed their departure) would almost certainly make the new employer very cross.

What followed were a series of cases brought by employees and prospective employers which made it abundantly clear that employers had to take responsibility for what they said and could be sued for, amongst other things:

  • Discrimination
  • Defamation
  • Breach of contract
  • Deceit

Claims started to get expensive and so followed the rise of the “factual reference”, a very bland statement confirming only what a prospective employer already knew.  Most employers I deal with give only factual references and know that they will only get the same in return.  A full reference is often met with raised eyebrows.

A factual reference does not unearth those skeletons and employers now need to do more to ensure they are employing the right people.  For those who can obtain them, a CRB check has all but replaced the reference. But not quite in the same way.  Whereas a full reference would extol the virtues of an employee, a clean CRB check simply states that there is no criminal record which would bar the applicant to employment.  It is a negative positive rather than a positive positive.

Other employers are taking to social media and Google to find out what the world knows about your applicant.  Affiliations to clubs and societies and political parties can all play a part in decision making processes for some employers.

So does it matter that the full reference has gone?  If you have access to CRB checks and the internet, you might not be too worried.  If you don’t or can’t use either, then it almost certainly does.


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About the author

Martin Laver

Partner and Solicitor

Partner in the commercial litigation team specialising in disputed trusts and Wills