Reference checks

As employers’ legal liabilities for the actions of staff become more extensive and complex it is important not to take shortcuts when checking applicants’ references. Phil Boucher finds out how employers go about it

Virgin Trains

Patrick McGrath, HR director, says: our simple rule is that no-one gets though the door without a satisfactory reference from a former employer – it cannot simply be from a friend or ex-colleague.

We write to their employer and ask for two things: a reference, and a list of questions about the person which asks what sort of job they had; when they started; why they left; what their attendance was like; how many days off they took; and whether they were ever involved in misconduct.

It is basically a comment on the character of the individual and we will not progress with an application if it is unsatisfactory.

In addition we also cold-call former employers to make some checks on the individual who has sent the reference: to make sure they exist and have been telling the truth. We also check on other aspects of the application such as education, whether the applicant went to university and what grades they achieved.

These rules apply throughout the organisation. In fact, the higher up the hierarchy you go the easier it is to check on people because they may have been mentioned in the press at some stage.

The only difference is if someone is applying for a job in a financial or a booking capacity as there might be more questions asked about their character. You basically adapt what you look for to the role in hand.


Saudugar Singh, HR director, says: for most positions we use a standard form that asks for information on attendance, punctuality, reliability and attitude. It also asks for confirmation of the applicant’s job title, period of employment and final salary, just to make sure all is as it should be.

As you go up the organisation to senior managers, we make a phone call as well. Ideally, we talk to the referee, the previous boss or manager and basically have a conversation about the applicant.

To round off the process we send a letter asking the referee to confirm the information we have and provide details of the candidate’s final position, what they were doing in the job and what their major accomplishments were. If the job is particularly sensitive we may also use an outside agency to help.

But the whole process is about accuracy – making sure everything the applicant has said fits. For instance, if they say they have an MBA; we want to make sure they have one. However, one thing we do not do is contact previous employers without permission, as I think you really need to get the consent of the individual first.

We have only had one application in four years where the references have not been satisfactory, so for the most part it is a case of double-checking. If people are being dishonest they deserve to be caught out by the checking process, because it may stop the right person from getting the job on merit.

Reed Elsevier UK

Hannah Stockley, assistant HR adviser, says: We do not normally take references until we have made a job offer. For the more junior positions this will be a previous employer and a personal reference, and for more senior positions between two or three previous employers.

The only exception is for board-level jobs, where we normally enlist an executive search service to do in-depth audit checks before the interview.

Once we have a shortlist they get references, run credit checks and identify any malpractice that may have occurred in the candidates’ career.

But for most jobs we use a standard reference request asking for specific information, such as details of the jobs they have mentioned in the interview. This is simply to check that people have done what they have said, and to make sure it is authentic we get it signed by a senior individual or HR person.

If this raises any queries we contact the HR department to confirm and verify the information. Quite often you get general references too, so we often follow things up with a phone call for more specific information. The same applies to qualifications as people often do not have their certificates and we may need to verify their grades.

People are told that if they give misleading information we have the right to take action, but for the most part it is simply a case of people making innocent mistakes. When people do lie it tends to be claiming something that their boss has done rather than themselves but this is usually teased out at interview stage.

Hudson Global Resources

Geraldine Heatherington, HR director, says: We use Kroll International for all internal placements because we felt that we needed a degree of rigour on criminal checking that we could not deliver ourselves. It checks the last three employers and go back the last three years, to make sure that people have done exactly what they say they have.

It has proved to be much more useful than running our own checks, as Kroll are particularly good at tracking down fraudulent references. We can now be certain that a reference is not from someone’s brother-in-law or anything like that.

But when we place people with a client, we run our own checks – particularly if they are being placed for a permanent job. We take a copy of their passport and make sure we get verbal references to make sure they have the experience they claim to have.

For us, the most important thing is: have you been employed where you say you have, have you got the experience that you say you have, and are there any career breaks that cannot be explained? This applies to anyone who has come to us, whether we are employing them internally or placing them with another company.

Any false references at all and we let the person go. We have had situations in the past where a candidate has lied about their career and we have found out that they have a criminal record and have been in prison. In any case like this we withdraw the offer immediately and extricate ourselves from the situation in the best way possible.

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