Myth busting: Candidate referencing

References are key to the recruitment process, but some common misconceptions have made it less effective. Lee-Martin Seymour sets the record straight

By Lee-Martin Seymour, CEO of Xref

It’s been well documented that this year’s UCAS admissions all pointed to it being a ‘buyer’s market’, with more options available to those looking for university places. It’s a Europe-wide trend and it means universities are under increased competition to sell themselves to potential students.

One of the key selling points is, of course, the quality of their teaching. An efficient and effective recruitment process is key for universities to ensure they’re hiring the best possible staff members, thus improving their ranking against competitors.

The challenge is that one of the key tools in the recruitment process – candidate referencing – has long ceased to be an effective mechanic. Over the last 10 years in the UK, we’ve moved from offering informative, opinion-based feedback about former employees, to providing only neutral references that simply confirm a candidate’s name, dates of employment and job title.

The common assumption is that there is a fear of being sued by a candidate for defamation or discrimination. Candidates are taking advantage of these fears, too. Recent research by Xref showed that nearly a third (28%) of UK candidates take advantage of flaws in the reference checking process and 21% of jobseekers have actively encouraged referees to lie on their behalf.

Here, we do some myth-busting to help you make smart hiring decisions, find the best staff and get the edge over other universities.

Myth #1: Referees can be sued for giving a bad reference

This myth is widely accepted as truth. This has led to referees offering only positive feedback when in reality they have some constructive criticism to share. Recent Xref research confirmed this, finding that 38% of respondents said they would be careful not to say anything that could be considered negative if asked to provide a reference for a previous colleague. If the information shared during a reference check is true, referees cannot be sued for the feedback they provide.

Myth #2: Reference checking is time consuming and difficult to get right

The traditional phone-based reference checking method can be admin-heavy, frustrating and a waste of time for those doing the recruiting. However, the process doesn’t have to be a burden. Using intuitive, technology-based solutions, organisations can conduct reference checking quickly with greater accuracy, consistency and ease. This frees up the time of members of the team dealing with recruitment and wider HR processes at your institution, enabling them to focus on more important tasks and ensure roles are filled quickly and correctly.

Myth #3: Employers can ask whatever they want during a reference check

Whilst this statement is untrue, traditional approaches cannot guarantee that the person conducting a reference check won’t veer beyond their scripted questionnaire. The conversational nature of phone-based referencing can lead to illegal questions being asked, which increases the risk of job applicants lodging discrimination claims.

Questions such as asking a candidate’s age, marital status, and sexual orientation absolutely should not be asked, but alarmingly they are. Using a consistent, standardised approach, which has been tailored to the specific role, will overcome the organisational risk of slipping into a discriminatory conversation.

Myth #4: All references are positive and therefore offer no insight

For organisations using smart reference checking approaches, this myth has been well and truly busted. References that offer assurance and security to both employers and referees lead to more honest responses being provided. These references that consider both the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate will not only ensure the university makes an informed hiring decision, but will also reflect better on the organisation the candidate has previously worked for.

Myth #5: There’s no security around reference checking data

Although many data protection conditions are already in place via the UK’s Data Protection Act, GDPR – the new EU regulation – will put tighter stipulations around the way that universities should handle and protect personal data. This includes how records are stored, the steps taken to ensure consent to use data, how the data is used, and how it is protected while in the hands of a university.

While it can be difficult to accurately record and securely store data collected via a verbal reference check, universities must comply with data privacy laws. Online reference checking solutions can offer peace of mind about data privacy compliance. There is a UK-wide perception that the somewhat cavalier approach traditionally taken to reference checking is still the norm, and therefore leaves those involved in the process open to risk.

In order to make informed, confident hiring decisions, we need to know about a candidate’s professional background – it’s only fair, therefore, that we help other organisations do the same by disregarding the referencing myths and providing our valuable insight into the suitability of previous employees, thus bolstering a strong sector of higher education professionals. 

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