When I first qualified employers habitually gave detailed references about employees. Then came the case law where employers were challenged for negligent misrepresentation and the Data Protection Act allowed ex-employees to access references via the subject access request and in fear, somewhat unnecessarily, organisations backed away from saying anything substantive. We are now in an era of ‘Joe Bloggs worked for us from X date to Y date and this was his job title and we have a policy of not saying anything further’.

The Federation of Small Business and BBC1’s Fake Britain recently researched the extent to which employees are presenting employers with fraudulent references. Their evidence from a survey of 1800 small firms is shocking. They found that for entry and mid level jobs 40% of references were dodgy and 12% were for management positions. They found 7 out of 10 employer were unaware that there are websites where applications can obtain fake references.

So what can you do? Some employers refuse to accept ‘to whom it may concern’ references. Some have their own proforma which they send a previous employer asking for information to be verified such as:
• dates of employment
• details of the applicant’s salary on leaving employment
• the reason the applicant left/is leaving employment
• whether the applicant was dismissed
• whether the organisation would re-employ the applicant
• whether the applicant was ever suspected of dishonesty or breach of trust
• the reliability of the applicant
• details of the applicant’s time-keeping
• the number of days’ absence from work in the most recent 12-month period.
Often the employer will only accept such a form if it is signed by HR or a senior manager. Preferably, candidates shouldn’t start work until you have satisfied yourself about references, maybe checking by telephone call to the previous employer that the person did work there/that the reference was given as stated. At the very least, your offer letter should be conditional upon satisfactory references being obtained so that if they are not you can end the person’s employment swiftly.

Ask your recruitment agency to run checks on things like qualifications, looking at original certificates or checking with the awarding body as if someone has been dishonest on one part of their application, there is a risk they have lied elsewhere too. If you use an application form; have a declaration of truth on it to fall back on if you subsequently find a problem.

Even if you are only able to obtain a fairly worthless reference, keep on top of the candidate once they commence employment by diarising a probationary review, managing any sickness absence that emerges promptly and remember that generally people need 2 years’ service before they can bring an unfair dismissal claim.