What you need to know about reference checks
Many employers question the value of reference checks – they can be time consuming, especially when you are keen to sign off on your selected candidate. So how can you ensure you get the most value from the exercise?  

Reference checks are an important part of the recruitment process, says Manisha Maligaspe, Student Programs Leader, ANZ at Amazon.

“Genuine reference checking is about whether the candidate actually worked at the place they said they did and carried out the tasks they said they were doing,” she says. “Essentially, it’s a means of verifying the candidate’s skills and experiences they represented in their resume and throughout the assessment process and interviews.” 

While reference checks can be time consuming, thoroughly checking out a candidate before you offer them a position is likely to save you time in the long run and potentially avoid any issues later on.  

The difference between personal and professional references

A personal reference is someone who has not worked with the candidate and who can discuss the individual’s values, characteristics and personality. A professional reference is usually a former employer, client, colleague or supervisor who can recommend the candidate’s work ethic, skills and attitude. 

“In a perfect world, the candidate would provide a previous manager or supervisor that they have reported to directly,” says Maligaspe. “A professional reference check, ideally where the candidate has reported to that individual, is usually an accurate confirmation of the candidate’s employability and skills.”

Employers might ask for a personal reference if the candidate is young or has not had much experience, but Maligaspe says it’s usually best to ask candidates to provide the name of at least one professional referee. 

How to get around a ‘no reference policy’

A ‘no reference policy’ is when an organisation has a rule not to give verbal and / or written references about current or former employees. 

Hirers can ask candidates to check with other recent employers to see if they are willing to give a reference or ask for a character reference from an ex-colleague or former manager at the previous employer in lieu of a formal reference. “You could even ask for a candidate to provide performance review feedback in lieu of a reference check,” says Maligaspe. 

Can candidates legally ask to see notes from a reference check?

“Unsuccessful job applicants will not always be entitled to access referee reports from the prospective employer,” says Dilshen Dahanayake, employment solicitor at MinterEllisonRuddWatts.

Under the Privacy Act 2020, people are ordinarily entitled to access personal information that agencies hold about them. However, there is an exception for ‘evaluative material’, which includes information that has been compiled for the purpose of determining a person’s suitability for employment.

“If the referee report was given by the former employer on the basis that it would be confidential and/or that it would not be disclosed to the job applicant, the prospective employer may lawfully refuse to disclose the report,” Dahanayake explains.

What you can and can't say about former employees 

If you agree to provide a referee report about someone, you should be honest in the information you provide, says Dahanayake. “You could get in trouble if a prospective employer relies on information you give them that you know to be inaccurate.”

You should also only give information about the individual that is relevant to the purpose it is being sought. “Disclosing personal information about the individual that has nothing to do with their suitability for employment could be a breach of their privacy,” says Dahanayake.

If you don’t feel comfortable providing a reference, or if you know your report would not be favourable to the job applicant, you could provide a certificate of service instead. A certificate of service sets out the individual’s start and finish dates, their position, and sometimes a summary of their key responsibilities. It does not include any comments about how well the employee performed in their role.

Best practice reference checks

Talk to the right people 

“For the employer to get an accurate picture of how the candidate performs in a professional environment, the reference check provider has to ideally be a supervisor or manager – those who can speak knowledgeably about the applicant’s performance, communication, cultural fit and work ethic,” says Maligaspe.

Protect the candidate’s privacy 

“The employer should ask the candidate whether they have informed their previous employer of their job search otherwise it would be a very awkward situation,” advises Maligaspe.

Ask the right questions and be specific

“Employers should implement behavioural-based interviewing in a reference check situation,” says Maligaspe. “Such as, “Tell me about a time when Joe went above and beyond to complete a critical task”. Questions like this provide in-depth insight into a candidate’s interpersonal skills, adaptability and overall work ethic. 

Remove referee bias and be wary of fake referees 

“Usually a candidate will provide referees who will speak favourably about them to increase their chances of securing the job,” says Maligaspe. “Always ask the referee for any areas of development the candidate has, any skills they think the candidate should improve on or any projects they would like to see the candidate working on in the future.

If a candidate provides a referee’s details, do your due diligence. Look them up online prior to conducting the reference check to make sure they are who the candidate says they are.”

Information provided in this article is general only, does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. SEEK provides no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability or completeness. Before taking any course of action related to this article you should make your own inquiries and seek independent advice (including the appropriate legal advice) on whether it is suitable for your circumstances.

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