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Asked to be someone’s referee? This is how to prepare

Referees are key part of the recruitment process. Speaking with referees helps potential employers figure out whether a candidate is the right fit for a role, as well as confirm the accuracy of their application and what they’ve said at interview.

If you’re asked to be a referee for a colleague, former colleague or someone you currently manage or mentor, there’s a lot to consider, especially when it comes to your own professional reputation.

‘If you give a reference for someone who turns out to be not exactly what you said, your reputation is damaged,’ says Professor Jenni Lightowlers, Dean at Deakin Law School. ‘Any reference you give is a reflection of you as well as the person you’re providing a reference for. It’s especially important to be mindful of this because many of us work in fairly small fields.’

To help you decide whether to consent, here’s everything you need to know about being a referee – including how to dodge awkward questions.

The role of a referee

A reference is usually sought after the candidate has gone through one or two rounds of interview as well as any other assessments as part of the application process like psychometric testing.

Being a referee typically involves a short phone conversation with the hiring manager. They will usually seek to confirm that the candidate has worked where they say they’ve worked and the duration of their employment. Many hiring managers ask about the candidate’s level of responsibility, including whether they had a team of people reporting to them, how they worked independently on tasks and the nature of their deliverables.

If you currently work with the candidate, the hiring manager may also ask why they’re leaving – or want to leave – the company.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the hiring manager may poke around for extra information about the candidate. ‘Quite often they’re trying to find out information about the candidate’s weaknesses,’ Prof. Lightowlers says. ‘Prospective employers like to ask probing questions.’

Deciding to be a referee

Prof. Lightowlers says it’s best to only provide a reference over the phone. ‘A written “To Whom it May Concern” reference is particularly vulnerable,’ she says. ‘If you say good things, they’re usually too generic for the purposes of the particular employer. As an employer, I place no weight whatsoever on a written reference.

‘If you say bad things, the reference will go in the bin – or potentially you’re leaving yourself open to defamation if it gets into the wrong hands.’

'If you give a reference for someone who turns out to be not exactly what you said, your reputation is damaged.'

Professor Jenni Lightowlers,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Ask about the nitty-gritty details before agreeing to be a referee. Request a copy of the job description and the candidate’s application. Clarify in what context they want you to be their referee – for the period of time you worked together at one company, across your time together at several employers or as a personal referee who can speak to their character.

If you feel uncomfortable with any of the information you receive, or you feel the application is inconsistent with what you know about the person, it’s perfectly okay to decline the offer. ‘You can simply say: “I don’t feel I’m capable of doing this because the things I would be saying are inconsistent with your application”,’ Prof. Lightowlers says.

Managing your responsibilities

If you decide to go ahead, balancing your responsibilities to both the candidate and the employer is one of the most crucial aspects of being an effective referee.

‘For the employer, you absolutely need to be honest in the information you convey about the objective facts – where the candidate worked, what they did and how they worked,’ Prof. Lightowlers says.

If you’re asked whether you would employ the candidate again – one of the most common questions asked by inquisitive hiring managers – and, well, you wouldn’t, Prof. Lightowlers suggests a positive approach.

‘Concentrate on strengths rather than weaknesses,’ she says. ‘Perhaps there were reasons they didn’t necessarily fit compatibly in your workforce, they have a skillset that you no longer require or you work as a team and this person may need some development as a team player but is a star as an individual when you need certain tasks done.’

You also have a duty to the candidate to provide a fair reference that respects their privacy. ‘You must not share things that you may be privy to as an employer that are private, such as the candidate’s domestic arrangements, number of kids or even where they go on weekends,’ Prof. Lightowlers says.

Referees also need to be very careful not to make comments that would be considered culturally offensive or discriminatory on the basis of gender, race and religion, as this is against the law.

Above all, remember that providing a reference is a lot more than a friendly chat. ‘Be careful what you say,’ Prof. Lightowlers says. ‘It will be written down and kept on record, so stick as much as you can to the facts. Don’t give you own personal opinions too much and try to be as objective as you can.’

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Professor Jenni Lightowlers
Professor Jenni Lightowlers

Dean, Deakin Law School, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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