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'Awkward': what job referees fear and what they really want - The Age

By Alan J. McDonald

Awkward': what job referees fear and what they really want - The Age

Shane Bywater guesses he’s been a referee on over 150 resumes. Most of the time, he considers the task a privilege and an opportunity to help someone out.

But every now and again, that privilege becomes “awkward”.

“I’ve had people I’ve sacked, or have had to make redundant, ask me to be their reference,” says Bywater, who works as a sales manager and leadership consultant.

“I’ll have to say ‘look this is where I could talk to but if I was asked these questions, I would have to answer honestly’.”

This month, more people are looking for jobs than at any other time of year.

Google trends reveal the term “job” peaks in January and Australian Bureau of Statistic figures show a fifth of unemployed people applying during the early parts of the year struggle to get a job due to a high number of applicants.

In the context of fierce competition, CV references can “make or break” an application. Unreliable or fake references can end up in court, as seen in the high profile case of Andrew Flanagan, who was fired as a group manager at Myer after one day when it was revealed he listed fake referees.

So what obligations do referees have in helping their former colleagues secure a new gig? And what is the etiquette around reviewing poor performers?

Best practice for job seekers

Senior recruitment consultant at Randstad’s HR Partners Carla Wilkinson says that employer references are “really important” when it comes to landing a job.

here’s a lot of weight that’s given to them [references]. Particularly when it’s coming close to offering a candidate a role,” she said.

But in recent years, those entering the workforce are becoming increasingly lax with prepping their referees.

Wilkinson says that around 80 per cent of referees she contacts are ready for the call, meaning 20 per cent are caught by surprise.

“It’s very annoying for people to get a call out of the blue from a reference checker,” says journalist Kate Southam who spent over a decade writing about workplace relations for online job search site CareerOne.

Southam says job seekers should at the bare minimum give their referees a “heads up” before applying for jobs but encourages a thorough “briefing” well in advance.

“Call them up and tell them about the job you’re applying for what are they looking for? Give your referee a list of dot points to focus on and give them examples of projects that you worked together on.”

Southam also says it’s important to regularly review references.

“You don’t want someone getting a call when you haven’t worked with them for ten years. It’s just a really bad look.”

Legal repercussions for inaccurate references

More than half of all job applications contain inaccurate information, according to legal and compliance officer Craig Sharp who works for resume screening service, CV Check.

“More than a quarter of people will admit to lying in job applications so increasingly companies are using services like ours to due background screening,” says Sharp.

Retail giant Myer lost face in 2014 for firing their newly appointed group manager Flanagan after it was revealed he listed fake referees and work experience.

Myer’s senior role attracted a pay packet of $400,000 and the falsified information put Flanagan before Melbourne’s County Court pleading guilty to four charges – three of obtaining a financial advantage by deception, and one of attempting to.

Trent Hancock, principal at employment law firm McDonald Murholme, explains Australian consumer law preventing “misleading or deceptive conduct” can also put referees in hot water.

Hancock deals with cases where employees can sue former employers after missing out on a position due to an “unfair, negative” employment reference.

He also explains there are “rare” cases where a candidate could sue a former employer for defamation for giving a negative reference.

Wanting to help

Monash University Business professor Greg Bamber is of the school of thought that the referee is to assist the job seeker in gaining employment. Over the years, he has lost count of the number of references he’s given to former students and fellow academics.

“We can be economical with the truth,” he says.

“From a referee’s point of view, there’s an obligation to tell the truth but you don’t have to detail the negatives about them, just accentuate the positives.”

Professor Bamber’s research into employment has found that the best selection processes include several sources of information about the individual and that a referee’s perspective should not be given too much weight.

“A wise employer uses not just references and interviews, but samples of previous work, selection testing or, depending on the role, focus groups and trial employment.”

Reputational damage

But others believe that it’s not only their duty to employers, but to themselves, to be brutally honest.

Careers coach Anthony Bonnici remembers a review he gave for a former colleague with attitudinal issues early on in his career.

“I wasn’t authentic as I should have been. I gave them a fairly glowing review,” he says.

Six months after he gave the review, the company called Bonnici to complain about his recommendation.

“They were really disappointed in the situation and I felt a huge load of blame.”

Twenty years down the track, Bonnici now runs his own business and says if a poor performer asks to list him as a reference, he is “upfront” about how he will review them.

“When you give your word on a person, it’s an endorsement and that puts your reputation at risk. The short term pain will prevent long term potential reputational damage,” he says.

But he also recognises that what he might consider a flaw in job seekers is subjective so makes an effort to include words like “in my opinion” or “at that time” when giving statements.

Refernece: ‘ ‘Awkward’: what job referees fear and what they really want ‘, The Age, Monday 7th January, 2019.