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Vouch for me

by Jackie Randles
19 October 2014
Have you ever been called on to provide a reference for someone you wouldn’t recommend? Have you felt apprehensive about what your referee might say about you? In today’s competitive job market, referee reports are the deal breaker. Giving someone a poor reference can potentially damage their career, while inflating a person’s capabilities not only has the potential to ruin your relationship with the employer, but in some instances, leave you exposed to legal risk. So what’s right?
A friend of a friend recently missed out on job after job, only to discover months later that her key referee had been incredibly negative. The circumstances in which this information came to light involved the employer who finally engaged this woman telling a mutual friend of the candidate that she should think seriously about changing her referees. When choosing who to ask to be our referees, we naturally look for those we can trust to speak of us in ways that are unquestionably positive. However, a referee’s duty is to provide an honest response to questions asked by a potential employer regarding someone’s suitability to the role at hand.
What if your referee can vouch for you as being a reliable, hard working and competent individual but would not necessarily recommend you as a suitable candidate for the position advertised? And in which circumstances should your referee disclose information about your professional or personal weaknesses if asked?
I recently had this discussion with a longstanding referee whom, having known me for many years and seen the output of my work, I have always assumed would give me a highly positive professional endorsement. When he told me he might feel it his duty to honestly state whether he thought a particular job would suit me, I was aghast. It had never occurred to me that his comments might not always go in my favour, even though I agree that there are obviously some roles that suit me better than others.
‘But how do you know what I am really capable of?’ I protested. ‘What if I needed that job? Surely you would not want to ruin my career prospects?’
His response was to ask me to consider the negative consequences of recommending someone for the wrong role. To learn that he may feel obliged to not recommend me for a role that, in his opinion, would not entirely suit my skills and experience was alarming. However, I could see his point. What if he did recommend me for a job for which it later turned out I was unsuitable? Where would this leave him? His relationship with the employer could be compromised, and his own standing as someone with strong professional judgement could be tarnished.
But how could he presume to know my current capabilities and how much my skills have progressed since I worked for him? It had now been some years since I was his employee and, while we have maintained a working relationship over the years, I am certain he does not know the full extent of my talent, nor would he be aware of the growing suite of professional skills and experience I have acquired over the years. But as he pointed out, referees have legal obligations to tell the truth to the best of their knowledge.
What if your referee can vouch for you as being a reliable, hard working and competent individual but would not necessarily recommend you as a suitable candidate for the position advertised?
A new employer can seek financial compensation from a former employer for providing a misleading reference that led to an appointment that did not work out. Damages could cover recruitment costs, termination pay-outs and any other financial loss as a result of a bad hire. Conversely, a candidate could sue a former employer for defamation. Invasion of privacy is another potential risk to both parties.
I have been unable to find any evidence of Australian legal proceedings as a result of providing a reference, but there are many examples of this happening in the United States, so much so that an increasing number of companies are creating ‘no reference’ policies whereby staff are not permitted to provide references for their former colleagues. Instead, they must agree to simply confirm the tenure of former employees, their job role and their duties.
I once worked in a government department where my manager prided himself in sniffing out dirt from any referee. He delighted in digging beyond accolades to expose weaknesses and made it his business to grill the referees of even the most low level recruit to find out the extent of their weaknesses. Grinning, he’d emerge from a private room triumphantly alluding to his skill in finding out the real story, probing beyond praise to discover the faults.
My colleagues and I saw how when quizzed intensely, even the most favourable referee could disclose information that did not show a candidate in good light. I might add that this strategy was not bulletproof: our pesky manager still managed to make some woeful employment decisions. Two staff members came and left in a short time, a costly exercise for the organisation that created extra work for all. Two other hires proved to be much less experienced than their resumes and referees suggested, each requiring hours of supervision and assistance to complete simple tasks.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence when it comes to referee reports. I have anxiously hoped that a referee would resist being drawn into the rabbit hole of describing my flaws and the areas where my performance could improve. I have also been asked to provide a reference for a former colleague who I found to be incompetent, downright lazy and unpleasant to work with. In this case I made it clear to them that perhaps I was not the best person to ask for reference. Did I tell them why I would not recommend them? No. However, in retrospect, I should have been more forthcoming.
If someone you would not genuinely recommend asks for a reference, you could honestly provide some feedback that may help this person improve their performance and in so doing, enhance their job prospects. Being upfront about the reasons why you’re not comfortable being their referee is the best course of action. It’s not easy to tell someone you would not vouch for their work, even though you might consider them to be a nice person. However, if you can honestly point out specific reasons why you do not wish to be their referee or tell them the areas where they would benefit in developing their skills, you will be helping them progress their career.
It’s important to be really clear about what you will and will not say when providing a reference for anyone. It would be unethical and unkind to agree to be someone’s referee and then speak about them in a negative way to a prospective employer. But it would also be unethical and unfair to the recruiter to lie about someone’s suitability when, from your experience, you believe that they may not be up to the task. It’s a fine line, but as your responsibilities lie with both the candidate and the company that is hiring, the right thing to do is to be as upfront and honest to both parties as you can.
 When giving a reference:
• Assess the candidiate’s ability to do the job and discuss this with them
• Tell the candidate what you can and cannot say about them if asked
• Keep your responses concise and avoid revealing personal information
• Be honest. If you do not think the candidate is up to the job, tell them and consider declining to be provide a reference
When asking for a reference:
• Ask your referee whether they are happy for you to provide their contact details to a recruiter
• Provide them with a brief job description and describe how it fits with your experience
• Ask your referee if they agree that you are a good fit for job and whether they can vouch for your suitability. If they can’t, ask them why, then find another referee
If you have no one to use as a referee:
• Seek character references from associates and colleagues
• Consider volunteering so that you can ask for an up to date professional reference
• Avoid pressuring friends to provide false references as referees can be sued for misrepresentation

Jackie Randles edited Living Ethics for more than ten years while also managing large-scale communication and behaviour change campaigns.