In recent weeks, I have worked with several clients who have all experienced the same issue, and it's a heartbreaking experience to have to navigate.
These clients have gone through the recruitment process, involving resumes, cover letters, selection criteria responses, psychometric testing, interviews - sometimes multiple interviews - and have arrived at the final destination as the preferred candidate ... pending phone reference checks.
This is where they've been tripped up, with referees giving references that were out of context, outright lies and/or highly exaggerated, resulting in these people missing out on the job, and in more than one case, being told it is unlikely they will consider them for future roles.
Readers, we need to talk about this.
It seems to me that a number of people in management positions aren't aware of the responsibility of being a phone referee. We all have workplaces in our past where we perhaps burned a bridge or two.
Or maybe the whole village caught fire while you were in the watch tower. Maybe you had a run in with a colleague or you didn't gel with your boss - we've all been there to some degree. This shouldn't have to railroad your entire career (with a few exceptions ... like maybe if you were a firefighter and you'd actually set the village on fire).
Referees hold a power that is unparalleled in the recruitment process. You can make it all the way through every step of the process, only to have a referee say something that raises a red flag to the employer - and without right of reply - you're out of the running.
This highlights several recruitment issues that really should be addressed.
Firstly, as a candidate, it really shines a light on the importance of carefully choosing your referees, and your considerations shouldn't only be about how they see you (although that's key, too!).
Thinking about where the person is in themselves is (perhaps) a surprisingly critical piece of the puzzle: are they in a good place with their mental health? How have/did they taken the news of your leaving? Are they the kind of person who would railroad someone else's career out of spite, regardless of your actual job performance?
You should also consider what your relationship with them is like. Have you had run-ins with them at work or perhaps experienced a personality clash? Have you challenged them in a way that was not welcome? Have you had any issues at work that they are privy to that you may need to pre-empt with a prospective employer?
However, even after such reflections, the referee could still shock you.
If you are the referee in this scenario, you need to be aware that choosing to give a negative reference can land you in hot legal water.
While in Australia, providing a job reference is generally protected under the Australian Uniform Defamation Laws by the common law defence of "qualified privilege", this defence is not bullet proof. For it to apply, referees must be providing a full, frank and honest appraisal of the former employee's work performance to the relevant person in the recruitment process.
This means that if your comments as a referee can be considered defamatory, and the candidate lost out on the job because of it (ie, harm was suffered), then you could find yourself in the midst of a civil suit.
From an HR perspective, if you undertake a reference check that doesn't fit with the person you've interviewed, ask for a third referee from the candidate. You can also talk to the candidate about the reference and give them the chance to answer to claims made and provide contraindicative evidence.
Therefore, while establishing a case against a referee for a damaging reference is not easy, particularly under the new defamation law reforms, it is not impossible. Seek legal advice and explore your options, particularly if you have suffered significant (and preferably quantifiable) harm to your career prospects.
And if you are asked to be a phone referee to someone else, don't be a jerk; just be honest. My grandmother always said, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all - you can always decline to be a referee in the first place.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.