Keeping candidates in check

Reference checking may seem passé, but research shows that three-quarters of
employers see it as an essential part of selection. Paul Nelson reports

Reference checking remains one of the most effective methods of ensuring
that a recruitment decision is the right one.

Research by IRS Employment Review reveals three-quarters of employers use
reference checking as part of the recruitment process. In the public sector,
the proportion is even higher, with nine in 10 employers depending on
references when making a selection decision.

The IRS research also shows that organisations regularly act on the
information they receive on job candidates from former employers and often
change employment decisions on the basis of unsatisfactory references. Six out
of 10 employers have rejected a candidate, or failed to confirm an appointment
because of an unfavourable reference in the past year.

A third of the employers polled have turned down one or two applicants
because of the quality of the reference.

Of the 113 organisations surveyed, 15 per cent have changed employment
decisions three or four times, in the last year, because of references and one
in 10 firms have changed five or more employment decisions.

One of the reasons for the continued emphasis on reference checking is
evidence that more job candidates are lying or exaggerating their achievements
or experience on their CVs.

The Risk Advisory Group checked almost 900 CVs on behalf of employers in the
final quarter of 2001 and found inaccuracies have increased by more than 20 per
cent compared to a similar sample of CVs the previous year.

Neil Rankin, recruitment and retention editor of IRS Employment Review,
believes many job applicants would be surprised by the weight employers place
on references. "For job hunters this may be surprising news. References
seem to have a poor image, seen as a throwback to former times but they are
still an integral part of the selection process."

The IRS study reveals that reference checking typically occupies the final
stages in the recruitment process, with seven out of 10 employers waiting until
they have decided on a candidate before checking references.

Almost a quarter of employers obtain references after the interview stage
and before choosing a preferred applicant, while one in 14 employers check
references at the first stage of the recruitment process – before interviews
have taken place.

Only 30 per cent of the public sector organisations polled obtain references
after a job offer has been made. More than half ask for references after the
final interview process but before a job offer has been made. A fifth of public
sector organisations conduct reference checks before any interviews are held –
compared to only 4 per cent of private sector firms which obtain references at
the same stage.

Jacqueline Coonie, personnel and training manager for Portsmouth Council,
which has a rigorous reference checking policy, agrees references are important
but stresses that they should not be considered in isolation.

"References are a very useful selection tool but only in context of the
overall process," she said.

The IRS study finds that when seeking references, employers are most
interested in candidates’ absence records, with nine out of 10 highlighting it
as a priority.

More than 80 per cent of employers are interested in opinions on candidates’
performance in their last job and 70 per cent are seeking opinions on job
candidates’ suitability for the vacancy applied for. Two-thirds of employers
want information on work history, punctuality and disciplinary record.

The IRS research is supported by a CIPD study revealing that employers
regard reference checking as the fourth most important part of the recruitment
process, behind interviews, applications and CVs.

Imogen Daniels, development and resourcing adviser at the CIPD, advises all
organisations to regard reference checking as essential. "They are an
important part of the recruitment process, not an add-on that is completed
after bums are on seats," she said.

Daniels is concerned that some employers are not using references correctly
and only take up references after a candidate has been offered the job. She
said: "The CIPD recommends that employers take up references before an
offer is made. There is a lot of pressure on recruiters, especially on those in
areas of skills shortages, to snap up candidates before competitors."

"Even though many employers will only give objective references, it is
still worth checking before you bring someone in," she said.

Case Study
The National Portrait gallery

The National Portrait Gallery places references at the centre of its
recruitment process.

The gallery’s standard application form insists on the applicant supplying
three references. The form has a tick box that asks the applicant if they can
be supplied before an interview. References are then sent a form including a
person specification, the reason for leaving and absence records.

Caroline Wynter, personnel manager at the gallery, said: "In most
cases, we are able to take up references before the interview process. The job
circuit for galleries and museums is quite small, and job hunters have usually
already approached their manager about a change of career."

Because gallery work involves children and the potential loss of the
collection, security checks are also run on potential employees.

Gallery line managers have the authority to write references for current and
former staff although they must contain only factual information copied to

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