Employment referencing: everything you need to know
Harriet O’Neill, May 22nd 2024

You’ve sifted through a mountain of CV’s, hosted some promising interviews, and now it’s decision time. But wait, hold up! Before you stamp the ‘You’re Hired!’ seal of approval, there’s a step you’ve missed out. Employment referencing. But is referencing as important as everyone makes out? Is it sensible to make a job offer without collecting references?

We’ve explored the world of referencing, the pros and cons, and whether it’s the right thing to include in your hiring process.

What does the law say about referencing?

In the UK, no employer is required to give a reference, unless they have agreed to do so in writing. If an employer does decide to share a reference with you, the main rule is that all information provided is true. The referee is not permitted to add any unfair or misleading information. Employment references can either be a character or work reference, and the amount of detail given is completely up to the person providing it.

What kind of information is usually asked for in a reference?

Work reference:

  • The employee's job title
  • Dates of employment
  • Details about their skills, ability and experience
  • Any current, relevant disciplinary records
  • The reasons for leaving the job

Character reference:

  • How the person writing the reference knows the applicant
  • How long they've known them
  • Details about the applicant's character and personal strengths
  • The applicant's suitability for the new role

What are the pros and cons of employee referencing?


Additional perspective: The additional perspective that references can give are a big positive. You can learn about the candidate’s soft skills and personal interactions, allowing you to assess whether they’ll be a good fit for your business.

Verification: Aside from learning more about the candidate’s character, carrying out references can be good for providing you with simple verification (or peace of mind). Does the candidate have the qualifications they say they do? Do they have the experience of working with the tools they mentioned? Can they really speak 5 languages? A reference can help you get the simple yes or no you’re searching for.


Subjectivity: One of the biggest downfalls of references is the fact that they’re inherently subjective. The quality of a reference will be linked directly to the relationship of the candidate and referee, therefore making them prone to positive or negative bias.

Lack of detail: By their very nature, references lack detail. A reference will generally only provide you with a very small snippet of information on the candidate and won’t fully reflect the candidate’s ability or potential.

Time-consuming: Finally, references take up time. Valuable time. With candidate experience being essential to making a good hire, reference checks add an additional layer to your hiring process and slow things down. This could put you at risk of losing the candidate to an employer with a shorter interview process.

How to make referencing part of your recruitment process

We’re constantly talking to our clients about the importance of properly planning your recruitment process BEFORE you start hiring. This means mapping out your process from A-Z, deciding on the stages, choosing who will be involved in interviews, and figuring out what you’ll measure candidates against. If you’re considering whether referencing should be part of your process, then this is the time to decide.

When it comes to making referencing part of your recruitment process, they’re generally carried out as one of the later stages, just before a formal offer is made. Here’s how to make references part of your process:

First, during the initial screening, inform candidates that reference checks will be a part of the process. This sets clear expectations from the start and allows candidates to prepare their referees ahead of time. Transparency at this stage helps avoid any surprises later in the process, ensuring that candidates are comfortable and aware of what is required of them.

Consistency is key when integrating references into your recruitment process. Establish a clear set of criteria for referees to address, focusing on specific aspects of the candidate’s previous job performance, skills, and character. This consistency allows for fair comparisons between candidates.

Finally, it's essential to maintain open communication with candidates throughout the reference-checking phase. Keep them updated on the progress and let them know if there are any delays or additional information needed. This level of communication enhances the candidate experience and reinforces your commitment to a transparent hiring process.

If you’d like more help mapping out your interview process for maximum efficiency and candidate experience, check out our recent blog here.

What if a reference isn’t satisfactory?

If a reference doesn’t give you the information you want or raises concerns, hold your horses on making any rash decisions. We advise our clients to first have an honest conversation with the candidate. Sometimes issues can be resolved with additional context. You can also reach out to other references for a broader perspective and follow up with the initial reference provider for more details. Assess the severity of the concerns in relation to the role to determine if they are critical or can be mitigated through training or support. This approach ensures you make an informed decision while giving candidates a fair chance.

Get in touch  

Before we wrap up, it’s important to remember that references aren’t (and shouldn’t) be the be-all-and-end-all of making a hiring decision. A candidate who wasn’t quite the right fit for one job, could be the perfect candidate for your role, so it’s best to take all references with a pinch of salt.

If you would like to learn more or have a chat about your hiring strategy, get in touch with our Co-founder & CEO, Alan Furley on alan@isltalent.com or connect with him on LinkedIn. 

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