Career clinic: interviewing techniques

“I recently interviewed a good candidate but wasn’t “wowed”, is it ok to approach their referees before I offer the job?”

The simple answer is “yes”.

The law is very clear with relation to references – an employer is under no legal obligation to give a former employee a job reference. If they do, they need to ensure that it is an accurate reference. If an employer gives an inaccurate or negligent job reference, the employee can sue their former employer to recover damages.

This is the only clear law pertaining to references and clearly relates to the previous employer. There are no legal restrictions relating to the request of references (or how they are used) by a “potential” employer or on using the reference as a tool to help make a decision about a job offer. Generally candidates are asked for their referee details at the application stage and are therefore aware that their referees may be contacted. It is important to state, from the outset, that a conditional offer is subject to satisfactory references.

The decision on whether to take a reference prior to interview and how to use the information obtained is discretionary. For example, if the sickness record of a potential candidate shows that the person has had 10 days off during the previous year, what is done with this information is at the discretion of the organisation, as everyone will have a different idea of what is acceptable. Bad performance or attendance in a previous role are both legitimate reasons to withdraw an offer.

I should stress that taking a reference prior to offer should only be done in a situation where you are seeking further clarity. Technically your recruitment, assessment and interview process should elicit all the information required to make a decision. In certain cases you may need slightly more detail or you may be having trouble deciding between two candidates and in these cases calling a referee is totally acceptable – though these cases should be the exception, rather than the rule.

If you find yourself in a position where you need to contact the candidates’ referees in each case, then I would suggest reviewing your recruitment process. It would seem that either your interview questions or your assessment process (if you have one) is not drawing out the detail about skills and attitudes which you need to make a decision.

A telephone reference has for some time been accepted as standard practice and people tend to talk more candidly over the phone so using this format can often work to your advantage. There are a few simple guidelines when getting a reference by phone: contact referees via a main switchboard (when possible) to confirm the legitimacy of the organisation ensure that all information is obtained in confidence and record all responses in as much detail as possible at the time of the phone call.

More information on job offers, references or general information on employment law 

Mary jackson is recruitment manager for Hackney Council’s children and young people’s directorate

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