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How to get effective references

Posted on 26/04/2021 by Laura Fox

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A recent survey by the Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) found that employers considered DBS/criminal checks to be the most important element of safe recruitment, followed by the candidate’s values and behaviours. Perhaps surprisingly, references only came in third out of the four options, but almost 50% of those surveyed said they placed a ‘high’ importance on references when making their recruitment decisions.

So why this discrepancy and how do we ensure that we get all that we can out of the references we request for our candidates?

Before we go any further, it is worth mentioning that out of around 4.2m Standard and Enhanced DBS checks that are carried out every year, 95% will contain no information relating to cautions, convictions, police intelligence or barred list information. Not only that, but only certain roles require this level of check, so putting such a high emphasis on the importance of this information may be slightly misguided. Therefore, obtaining references is a far more likely option for the majority of employers and it is very unlikely that a candidate is appointed without an employer receiving satisfactory references.

But just what is a ‘satisfactory’ reference?

Firstly, you will need to establish just what it is you want to get from a reference – do you just want to verify their employment dates and job title, or do you need further information on their conduct or performance? As part of the same survey by the DBS, employers requested far more detail in their references than they were able or willing to provide themselves, so if it is your organisation’s policy just to provide employment dates and a job title, don’t be surprised if this is all you receive when you send out your own reference requests.

If you want more than just an ‘employment verification,’ how do you know that the person you are asking is the right person to request a reference from?

A professional email address from the organisation your candidate worked for is next to impossible to fake so you know that they have not just asked their best friend to complete a reference for them, but as we’ve already established, these references very rarely have further useful information than the employment dates. Even if you have the details of their line manager, the organisation’s policy may mean that they must pass it on to a central HR team who deal with all of their reference requests.

Below are just a few steps you could take to try and ensure you get quality references for your candidates:

  • Obtain the organisation’s standard employment verification letter from a professional email address, with a supporting character/personal reference from their line manager.
  • If you need to ensure you are asking the right individual for the reference, check out their profile on LinkedIn or look them up on the organisation’s website.
  • If the organisation’s policy prevents them from providing a detailed reference, follow up your email request with a phone call – not only will this ensure you are speaking to the right person, but you’ll also be surprised at how much more information people are happy to give out over the telephone if it’s in a much less formal capacity. However, make sure you let them know if you will be taking written notes.
  • If they are still only allowed to give out factual information, ensure that you ask them if the candidate has been subject to any form of formal performance management or disciplinary action within the last two years.


​At TPP, we pride ourselves on doing the right thing and this is very much reflected in our approach to compliance and best practice, which is endorsed by our REC Audited status. We take a proactive approach to seeking out references for our temporary workers and work with our clients to tailor our approach to compliance based on their organisational policies or needs.

For more information on how we can support you with your temporary staffing requirements or for advice on referencing or other compliance queries, please get in touch on 020 7198 6000 or info@tpp.co.uk