How to structure those reference requests

Posted 17 October 2014 by
sitecore\Robert McHenry - Chairman at OPP

References on job candidates are a very valuable source of information, and yet they are being requested less and less by private sector employers. The main reasons are a fear on the part of the referee (or the referee’s employer) that if they give a candid reference, they might be sued; and scepticism on the part of the new employer about the value of any references they might obtain.

Eliciting references in a systematic way mitigates against these concerns. Working out which competencies the job holder must have in order to do the job well is a good start. There is a very useful list of competencies here.

From this list, select the six that are most important to the role, and don’t be tempted to include more. (You will find OPP’s 16PF Job Profiling Kit helpful here – it provides a structured exercise to focus on the most important competencies for a particular job role). Next, create a form by listing your chosen six along with a short definition of each one in a column down the left side of a page, with a scale of “fit” to each competence along the top. The following table gives an example of this.

Vacancy: Sales person

Job competencies table

The wording in the competencies boxes should be chosen carefully. You are going to send the referees a short description of the job (maximum 400 words) and ask them to use the table to assess the candidate’s fit to “your job” (ie the job you are seeking to fill). I like six point scales because they prevent people using the ‘sitting on the fence’ point in the middle.

This approach has several advantages.

The reference form can now be supplemented with the candidate’s name and any information you would like to have about the referee such as their job title and the context in which they have observed the candidate’s behaviour. You should also include a sentence giving brief details of the working conditions you will be providing and explain that for the job to be done well, the six listed competencies are essential. You might offer to hear the referee’s ratings over the telephone. This can have advantages for both potential employer and referee.

Here are some additional tips:

Academic research suggests that conventional written references have poor predictive validity (this may be one source of an employer’s scepticism about references); but when references are structured in the manner set out here, their validity improves significantly and close to the level of the structured interview.

(NOTE: You can further enhance your selection processes by using the same competency model to assess candidates’ personality, such as with the 16PF Competency Report or the Sirius system, both of which provide an interview guide for each candidate that is tailored not only to the competencies of the job role, but also their personality).

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