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Employment References

Employers generally conduct a verbal reference with at least two previous employers. A recruitment policy should state clearly how references will be used, when in the recruitment process they will be taken up and what kind of references will be necessary (for example, from former employers). These rules should be applied consistently.

Recruiters should always obtain references to check factual information such as qualifications. But they should not ask former employers to supply a subjective opinion as to an applicant's likely future performance. Such data is unreliable and can be misleading.

If references are sought, they will be most effective if you include a job description with the request, with structured, relevant questions that will enable you to gain accurate further information about the candidate's abilities. Do not ask for personal information or for conjecture about the applicant. Remember too that completing a reference takes time and proper consideration, so only seek such references if you believe they are necessary and appropriate. A simple form confirming dates of employment, capacity and particular skills may be satisfactory?

The holding of particular qualifications, training or licences may be important to the job, and it is reasonable to ask candidates for proof. If checks on such qualifications are to be made, it is good employment practice to make sure the applicant knows, and that originals of any relevant documents should be brought at the interview stage and be held on their personnel file.

The timing of reference and qualification checks is variable. References are often taken up at the offer stage and the candidate may be asked to bring documentary evidence of qualifications on the first day of work, if they do not produce this evidence at the interview. References no matter what should always been taken up with the current and previous employers, checking that the information provided by the candidate on their current role, responsibilities and salary is correct. If you decide to use a telephone reference, confirm the identity of the referee over the phone and always make full notes of your call, date it, sign it and send it to your HR Department for the individual’s file.

Although nobody can be required to provide references, referees are under a legal obligation to use due care when compiling a reference to ensure that they are based on an accurate information. If the new employer or subject of the reference suffers damage as a result of a negligent misstatement made by the referee, then he or she will have grounds to sue the referee for negligence. Also if the subject of the reference suffers any defamation of character orally or in writing, or suffers damage because of the contents of the reference knowingly given untrue and or given with malice intended, then a civil action for defamation or malicious falsehood might follow.

The following suggestions should also be considered and consistently applied in light of the decision you have made on checking references to help to avoid any common pitfalls:

1. Consider how many applicants’ references you need to check. For example, you may decide that reference checks are needed only for short-listed applicants.

2. Under the Privacy Act, it is advisable to specifically obtain the applicant’s consent, preferably in writing, to your obtaining information from referees or other sources, and the uses to which the information will be put. A straightforward way to obtain this consent is to include it in an application form that each applicant can fill out and sign. Other requirements of the Privacy Act that also need to be complied with include ensuring that the collection of the information does not intrude unreasonably on the applicant’s personal affairs.

4. Care needs to be taken with pre-employment health screening. For instance, the collection of this information for the purposes of discriminating against applicants with a disability, where the relevant exception in the Human Rights Act does not apply, would be unlawful. Seeking information that is not relevant to the proper and safe performance of a job could also be in breach of the Privacy Act

5. Consider whether this is a job where checking prior convictions is appropriate and the procedures and timescales of industry registration bodies, where certification or registration is a requirement of the position.

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Disclaimer: This information has been written for and submitted to HRINZ for publication and has been published in good faith for the general information of HRINZ Members of the Institute. HRINZ accepts no legal responsibility for the contents of the Knowledge Base and appropriate professional advice and assistance should be sought in particular cases.

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