Recent reports have suggested that the Government is considering proposals to make it a legal requirement for an employer to provide a reference for a current or past employee. The rationale appears to be that some employers have used the threat of not providing a reference to ‘silence’ complaints of harassment, especially by women. The proposal has been welcomed by some and criticised in other quarters.
But the question that we should really be asking is why on earth we still, in 2019, expect references anyway?
References were historically designed to allow upper class Victorians to assess the honesty of potential servants. Many a Victorian novel features the ultimate threat of dismissing a servant without a reference – meaning that they would be unemployable in the future. They date back to a world in which employers could operate a closed shop and exclude those who were undesirable – not necessarily dishonest. Given that diversity and inclusion are something the HR profession is supposedly promoting, is persisting with an outdated nineteenth century domestic service practice really a good idea?
And even if you don’t accept that argument, what do references tell us anyway? If I write a glowing reference for Employee X, who worked in my small, flexible organisation, how does that help a new employer – which is far larger, with a much more bureaucratic and ‘command and control’ culture, assess whether she can do a different job in that company? How does knowing that Employee Y had 10 days off sick in the last year help you manage their attendance in a new company?
The problem is that too many employers use references as an easy get out for their own poor recruitment decisions. “Why did we take him on?” is a frequent question after an employee has left or been dismissed. “Well, his references were good” is an equally frequent reply (usually from HR). It’s as if a reference conveys some sort of magic guarantee of good performance, in the same way that some ancient peoples believed that the hooting of an owl before sowing seeds would guarantee a good crop.
I’m aware that there are some sectors where legally a reference is required (schools, financial organisations etc). But for everyone else, surely the time would be better spent on a more thorough recruitment process, rather than simply generating meaningless paperwork to justify our own decision-making inadequacies. (And as an additional benefit, it couldn’t be used as a threat against employees who do make legitimate complaints)