The purpose of a reference check is to verify a candidate's credentials (education, dates of employment, job title, etc.) and generally assess a candidate's suitability for the vacant job. In most cases, assuming the candidate has worked in the same industry for a few years, a reference from their previous employer may satisfy the above requirements.
Of course, there will be situations where this may not be possible, for example, if a candidate has only ever had one employer, or has worked for their employer for a very long period of time. However, even in situations where there are viable alternative referees, we are increasingly seeing requests from prospective employers to obtain references from the candidate's current employer. Aside from prejudicing the candidate's current role with their existing employer, there are a number of important considerations for employers to bear in mind when asking candidates to obtain references from their current employer. This article sets out some advantages and disadvantages of asking an existing employer to be a referee.
- The referee will be able to discuss the candidate's current skill set.
- The referee should be able to supply recent examples of their achievements, strengths and areas for improvement.
- Counter-offers: Requesting a reference from a current employer alerts the employer to the fact that the employee is considering a move. This gives them the opportunity to make a counter-offer to tempt the employee to stay. Counter-offers may be in terms of a promotion, a lateral move internally or a pay rise. Even if the candidate rejects the promotion, you may still find yourself subject to a bidding war to secure your perfect candidate.
- Misleading references: An employer who is upset that their employee is leaving, and does not want them to go, may provide a deliberately negative reference with the intention of jeopardising the candidate's prospect of finding a new job. On the other hand, an employer who is not happy with the candidate's performance, but does not want to resort to a lengthy performance management process, may give a false positive reference to ensure that the employee can obtain a role elsewhere.
- Peer references: When forced to provide a reference from their current employer, some candidates will ask someone at the same level as them to provide a reference. In this situation, the value of the reference is reduced, as that person will not necessarily have had hands-on experience to comment on the candidate's capabilities.
I have obtained some great references from existing employers who are fully supportive of the candidate's decision to leave. Clearly, this will always be the best option, but in reality this rarely occurs. In my opinion, especially in a candidate-short market, the risk of counter-offers and the reduced value of a peer reference outweighs any benefits to be gained by obtaining a reference from the current employer as opposed to a previous employer.