Goodbye, Reference Letters. Hello, Google.

The letter of reference is quickly becoming outmoded, as employers shy away from putting their honest views in writing.

As a result, potential employers rely on more effective ways to verify a job candidate’s credentials.

The implication for employers is that the absence of a letter of reference may say nothing about the candidate’s true merits.

Rather, you should look at other ways to get the assurances you seek about those candidates, whether online or by picking up the phone.

“IT’S COMPANY POLICY”

Increasingly, mid- to large-size businesses are declaring they do not issue letters of reference as a matter of policy.

There can be very good reasons for taking this approach:

  • Lack of consistency. When you have hundreds of staff coming and going over the years, it can be hard to provide a consistent approach to references that is fair to everyone. One employee may complain that the quality, or breadth, of their reference was not as good as the next person’s. The variation between references may have more to do with the time and care that the manager issuing the reference can give to it than anything else. Imposing a standard approach to the issuing of references could be administratively impossible.
  • Lack of unified voice. A single letter of reference is typically made on behalf of the business by one person – the person’s line manager. Nevertheless, there may be others in the business that have different views. How can you capture that diversity of opinion? And does the line manager’s opinion represent the views of the business when others disagree?
  • Risk of misleading. Issuing a reference that another employer may rely on puts the business at risk if they are said to have been misleading in some way. This risk is low – very few cases deal with the issue – but it cannot be written off as an impossibility.

Even if it is company policy not to give a letter of reference, in many cases an employer will still be prepared to put something in writing known as a certificate of service.

A certificate of service is simply a record of facts about the employee’s time in the business – when the employee was employed, what role they performed, and what key projects they may have been involved in. There is no expression of opinion about the employee’s qualities or performance. So it can in no way act as a recommendation of an employee – which is normally what an employee seeks when they ask for a reference.

YOUR ONLINE REPUTATION PROCEEDS YOU

The amount of information about an individual you can find online is increasing every year, making written references less relevant in any case.
Some of this information is what we post about ourselves, but other information may be unwittingly released. It can be surprising what you can discover about someone from just a Google search. (Try it on yourself now!)

LinkedIn is the online equivalent of an individual’s CV. You can learn a lot about a person’s work history, achievements, recommendations, and connections from this alone.

Employers are also looking at what they can find about a person from a candidate’s Facebook profile, whether positive or negative.

Facebook posts can be very revealing about a candidate’s attitude to others and their work.
Of course, LinkedIn and Facebook can only help where the candidate has posted something about themselves and you have access to their profile. But other public records can also be unearthed from a simple Google search.

Most relevant in the employment context, is that if an employee has brought a claim against their former employer in the Employment Relations Authority or the Employment Court, these will likely appear in your search results. Rightly or wrongly, seeing that a candidate has brought a claim against a former employer can have an effect on whether they are offered the job.

FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH

Another reason why written references alone are less relevant for potential new employers, is that what they don’t say can be more important than what they do say.

A carefully written reference may conceal that there were unresolved performance or disciplinary concerns in relation to the employee.

In order to find out whether there is more to the story than what the written reference contains, your best option is to ask the employee for verbal referees from their most recent direct line manager.

Once you have that manager on the phone, you can ask questions to draw out any concerns that never appeared in the written reference, such as:

  • Did you ever have any concerns about this person’s performance?
  • Why did they leave their employment?
  • Would you hire them again?

Given that former employers have a responsibility to answer truthfully, you can expect this conversation to give you a much more rounded picture of the employee than the written reference ever will.

CONCLUSION

The letter of reference is decreasing in its influence. It is being ousted as a matter of company policy and replaced by more credible sources of information about candidates, whether online or over the phone.

Two takeaways for employers:

  • Just because someone does not have a reference letter appended to their job application does not mean you should write them off. Less and less employers are handing out reference letters, and you may have to give the employee the benefit of the doubt on that count.
  • Even if you have a letter of reference, don’t rely on it solely. Seek verbal referees where you can to be assured of the candidate’s reputation and reliability. Check out their online profiles on LinkedIn or Facebook (where possible). Google their name and discuss your findings with the candidate.