References have often been a bone of contention, in my experience! I found myself in a particularly frustrating situation early on in my HR career. A mortgage provider  contacted me by phone  regarding an ex-employee – we then discovered that not only was the ‘ex’ claiming to still be a ‘current’ by falsifying some payslips to show recent dates, but also that he’d changed the salary amounts to make it look like he was earning a lot more than he had been! What a rogue! Funnily enough, he didn’t get the mortgage… Then a few weeks later a reference request for him landed on my desk. Asked to rate his integrity, I felt it only right to tick the ‘poor’ box – otherwise it was my own integrity that would have been dubious.

However, that wasn’t the only thing to land on my desk – not long afterwards, there was a letter from the  rogue ex, putting in an official grievance against me for scuppering his chances of employment by giving a bad reference! Not only that, the company had an attack of the vapours thinking that they may be facing a claim, and told me to write him a suitably grovelling letter of apology promising never to do it again!

Once I’d picked my chin up off the floor (on both counts), I flatly refused – partly because I would rather staple my eyelids together on a matter of principle, but also because I was confident that the rogue ex didn’t have a case, for the following reasons.

It’s a common misconception that you can’t give a ‘bad’ reference. That is only true if by ‘bad’, we mean malicious, misleading or blatant porkies. If a reference is accurate, objective and given in good faith, then it can still be negative (for example, facts such as poor attendance records, poor performance assessments, current disciplinary info etc.) Referees have a dual duty of care here – not only to the person who is the subject of the reference, but also to the recipient. It has been known for employers to make a claim against previous employers for giving a falsely good reference, causing them to hire someone who is actually rubbish!

So if you are asked for a reference for someone who was not a model employee, be as factual and impartial as possible, and if anything could be unjustly construed as negative, then include some explanatory notes. For example, if someone had 20 sick days in a year because they were hit by a bus and were in hospital for a month, make sure it’s clear that it wasn’t because they had a day off every two weeks with a cold/migraine/stomach bug etc.! If in doubt, just stick to basic facts like dates employed, job title and so on.

And don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by phone references  – rest assured, the person on the other end of the phone will be writing things down, so as soon as those notes go into someone’s Personnel file, they are legit references & covered by the Data Protection Act as much as if you penned it yourself.

Finally, remember that whoever supplies the reference doesn’t have to show it to the person they are providing it for; however whoever receives it does. So even if you don’t show the reference you’ve provided to your ex employee, that doesn’t mean they’ll never see it – so don’t put anything you aren’t prepared to stand by and justify if required!