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Being a Great Referee

Being a Great Referee
Many of you who have hired, supervised or managed staff in the past will, at some stage or another, find yourself being asked to be a referee. If the employee was a 'star' you will usually have no hesitation in providing the prospective new employer conducting the reference check with all the information they need to confirm they should hire the person.


But what about when the employee was less than perfect? And let's face it, very few are completely perfect do you provide constructive criticisms to help the potential employer make the decision or hire the person? Or do you gloss over the details, not wanting to say anything negative or impact the chances of the individual getting the job?

As someone who has spent more than 20 years working in a space where reference checks were part of the day to day, I have seen the full gamut of responses. From referees who were trying to be nice, giving feedback which resulted in the employee getting a role they were destined to fail in, right through to the most glowing and conversely most critical references. I have absolutely had referees completely destroy an applicant, leaving me thinking 'could they really be that bad or is this person just awful?' through to seeing clients hire employees based on glowing references which, based on their workplace performance, were completely false.


So what's the best thing to do when faced with a reference check call on an employee who could have used some improvement, or simply wasn't right for that role? Here are my top tips to being a 'great referee':

  1. Be honest you are doing no one a good service by lying during a reference check, or omitting details which could be important for the prospective employer to know. Think of yourself in their shoes, would you want them to gloss over important facts?
  2. Stick to the facts sometimes it can be hard, but try and leave the emotion out of it. If you need to provide some criticism of the employee, stick to facts which can be easily supported by documentation things like excessive sick leave, performance issues which were being managed, conflicts with other staff or customers and alike. The emotion that comes along with some of those issues you experienced with them can be hard to remove but it is important, as the same emotion may not translate with a new employer;
  3. Use examples if you can give the reference check examples of how the behaviour or skills miss match effected their work performance, and the impact it had on the organisation, this will help them to make a decision about whether it would be relevant to their business or not. Tasks and situations which they may have struggled with in your business may not occur in the organisation that they have applied for a role in, so be specific around what circumstances specifically they struggled in.
  4. Take a balanced approach, give examples of both the positives and the negatives, sometimes it can be easy to get 'caught up' and focus on the positives, and forget to mention any potential negatives, and vice versa.
  5. Think about what you would like to know if it was you asking for the reference check. If you were the potential employer would you want / need to know feedback about their performance, work ethic, skills or experience? If it's relevant to you, it may well be relevant to the potential employer you are speaking to.
  6. Remember that your feedback is not the only tool the potential employer is using to make a decision so don't feel guilty by being honest. Just because you promised the departing employee that you would be a referee, does not mean you promised to provide an inaccurate representation of them.
  7. You are not helping the employee by setting them up to fail. If the employee is not right for the role, then you are not doing them any favours by telling a potential employer they are the perfect applicant. In the end they will not succeed in the role which may in fact be more damaging for their confidence and employment opportunities by providing a reference check suggesting they can do a role which you know from your experience they are not best suited to.


An Invitation
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Author:Kristy-Lee Billett
About: Kristy-Lee has worked in the field of HR and recruitment since 1999. She holds undergraduate qualifications in Psychology, a Masters in Human Resource Management, is an Professional Member of the Australian Human Resources Institute.
Connect via:LinkedIn

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