Taking up references - or faking them?

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The Independent Online

By Emma Cook

By Emma Cook

5 November 1999

The effusive job reference has always been a convenient way to get rid of an unwanted employee once and for all.

Until now.

A new ruling from the Court of Appeal means that trusty euphemisms like "I wholeheartedly recommend X" (read "Please take X off my hands as soon as possible") could land lying bosses in the dock.

All assessments must be "true, fair and accurate", the Appeal Court said last week, after a case in which an ex-employee tried, unsuccessfully, to force a better reference from the London Borough of Hackney.

The judge's comments mean that in future angry firms could take legal action to recover the costs of hiring candidates with misleading references.

"Anything you put in writing could now be actionable if recipients are relying on the content," explains Michael Ball, head of the employment unit at Weightmans solicitors. "Managers can no longer be cavalier about references."

But if references are known to be so subjective, why do potential employers trust them? Apparently, not that many do. "At the moment, I'd look at them with great scepticism," says Heather Salway, director of the recruitment consultants Eden Brown Associates. Reference writing is an art that can conceal a multitude of employee sins. "There are certain phrases to look out for," she warns. "Anything that reads, 'I've got no reason to doubt' or 'As far as I'm aware' should ring alarm bells. They're get-out clauses."

It's not just the gushing white lies that can get bosses into trouble. Damning comments can be just as liable to land the author in court. Either way, references are a puzzle to be deconstructed rather than a statement of fact. And you have to know the rules. "It's a bit like obituary writing," Mr Ball says. "It's what you don't put in that matters. Managers have to be able to read into what's been left out." In which case, "X worked here for six years. He turned up at 9.30am each day and left at 6.00pm" should strike any employer as highly suspicious.

Employers have all sorts of motives for fudging their comments. Ms Salway says: "I know of one case where the company wanted to retain an excellent member of staff and gave a bad reference. The employee found out and left anyway." This, she says, is a typical scenario.

But, Ms Turner argues, references, however maligned they may be, have their role when completed honestly. But, she says, they should be shorter and more factual with less room for misinterpretation. "It would be better if people had to tick boxes relating to certain areas so they couldn't wander off into the realm of fantasy." Even so, the old adage, "if in doubt, leave it out", is still worth bearing in mind. As Ball says: "You can't get into trouble for what you don't say, only for what you do."

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