Palace blunder highlights dangers of job references

If the Queen of England managed to have the wool pulled over her eyes,
employers better be even more discerning when looking at information on
applicants’ CVs

Most employers ask job applicants for references. So did Buckingham Palace
when it hired a trainee footman, who later turned out to be Ryan Parry, an
undercover reporter for the Daily Mirror.

In a completely fabricated CV, the journalist gave the employer two
references: one from a fictitious paint firm, the other from a pub where he had
worked, but which had since changed hands. A ‘reference’ was given to the
Palace over the telephone by a pub regular.

This is an extreme case, but surveys show that job applicants often lie
about their educational qualifications, salaries, previous experience, job
titles, committed offences, and sometimes even their age. It has been estimated
that more than a quarter of applicants’ CVs may contain serious ‘inaccuracies’.

Many employers are now reluctant to give detailed written or oral
references. If inaccurate, they can be challenged by a disgruntled ex-employee
or an unhappy new employer – for example, on grounds of negligent
mis-statement.

The referee owes a duty of care in compiling the reference, both to the
recipient of the reference and to the subject of the reference. They must
ensure it is true, accurate and fair in substance, and it must not give a
misleading impression to the recipient.

In one case (TSB Bank plc v Harris [2000] IRLR 157), an employee succeeded
in a constructive dismissal claim against her employer, who had given an
accurate but unflattering reference. It referred to customer complaints made
against her, of which she was unaware.

Referees should note that although a reference is given in confidence, the
person could access a copy of it from the recipient through a subject access
request under the Data Protection Act 1998.

If an employer decides to give a reference at all, it has become increasingly
common practice for them to merely confirm objective factual matters, such as
the start date, end date and job held.

A reference therefore may not actually be much help in assessing the
suitability of an applicant for the job. However, provided it genuinely comes
from a previous employer, a reference may be useful to confirm facts in a CV.

Still, employers should consider what other steps can be taken to verify
information about a job applicant. For example, it may be wise to check
academic and professional qualifications – these days, it is not difficult to
acquire impressive-looking but worthless certificates.

They should also bear in mind the recommendation from the Employment
Practices Data Protection Code, that job applicants should be told that the
information they have given in their CVs will be verified.

Employers should note that ‘vetting’ (such as broader background checks)
should only be undertaken where there are special risks involved in hiring
employees.

An employer duped into hiring an applicant by false references or other
misleading information will be able to dismiss them.

Employers may have other legal remedies – for example, they could obtain an
injunction if a bogus employee discloses confidential information, as happened
in the Daily Mirror ‘footman’ case, But of course, it is far better to pick up
the problem before the job is offered.

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