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Human Resources

The problem with References

By February 21, 2020No Comments

I love the sound of references being taken. Like the first sight of a rain cloud to a Waikato dairy farmer, it heralds an imminent change of circumstances. Thankfully here at Rice HQ we’ve had a bumper week, so there’s been plenty of “for the purposes of the privacy act…” in the air. However, this isn’t what inspired today’s musings. Instead, I was motivated to put pen to paper after an email I received from a global recruitment firm this week. More of that later. To set the scene, lets look at the current protocol around references here in Aotearoa, and the associated costs.

Typically, our clients require two verbal references, ideally both being taken from someone who has directly managed the candidate. This is where we run into our first “unstoppable force meets immovable object” scenario. If we are working with a junior recruiter, it is conceivable that they have only had one boss. The boss would no doubt give a glowing reference (or not, if they are the petty-minded type. Again, more of that later), but the candidate won’t give them as a referee without a formal offer. A formal offer will not be presented without a reference. Us recruiters are then stuck in the middle of this unsolvable riddle, scratching our heads like Yossarian. Except this isn’t a book. It’s a $10k fee.

The next “unstoppable force meets immovable object” scenario happens increasingly often. Many business in the UK, and most in the US now have an actively enforced policy of not giving verbal references. They will confirm job title, dates of employment, and that’s about it. In counties with a rich litigation heritage, this is a necessary safeguard to protect the employer. In lil’ old New Zealand, it’s a showstopper. Most of our clients will tell us to find another referee, and won’t be satisfied until Murray from Mainfreight  describes their new hire as a “good bugger”.

The next challenge is the subjective nature of the reference. Sadly in my opinion, most references taken in New Zealand are too polite. We have become so used to the pithy, wishy-washy, “they’re great” references, that when a manager gives a true, constructive, yet positive reference, it is perceived badly. As we all follow the same template ripped-off from Hays in the mid-90s, we all ask about areas where the candidate could “improve”. Everyone of us, excluding me, could improve in multiple ways, and a good manager will know what your weak points are. But if these are listed in any kind of detail, it’s “Sayōnara” to your placement. Bullshit huh? Secondly, in our industry, not all recruitment leaders can be trusted to leave their pride at the door when giving references to former employees. Like a woman scorned, but ironically, usually a man, many managers can never get over the sense of abandonment and give a reference tinged with animosity and negativity regardless of the employees performance.

References can also cost some serious bunce. Especially when time and motion men working for global recruitment firms do the sums. If the average recruiter is billing $30k a month, their hourly rate is about $175. If you’re billing $60k a month, it’s about $350. By the time you actually get hold of a referee and fix your typos, not many of us can complete two references in under an hour. This doesn’t sound like much until you times it by 38,000, which is the current number of people working for Randstad. And yes I know all you Hays-trained recruiters will say it’s a great chance to pick up a new role, but from what I observe, most high billers don’t need more roles right now. They need candidates with valid visas.

It is for the above reason that there are a host of technical solutions to the challenge of referencing. The biggest, and dare I say best, in this part of the world is Xref. Using a secret recipe of 11  herbs and spices, xref promise a cheaper and less fraudulent system than the traditional route of picking up the old dog’n’bone. I haven’t used it myself, but I understand that it’s an intuitive platform with great UX. The type of thing that a global recruitment firm could use to take quick and easy overseas references right?

It would appear that one global firm has decided to create their own “xref” via the medium of copy/paste/outlook:

Sent: 17 February 2020 16:11
Subject: “URGENT: Employment Reference Request – XXXX XXXXXXXX”
Importance: High

Dear Sean,
I am writing to you from the Compliance team at XXXXXXX XXXX Recruitment Limited and was hoping that you would be able to help me.

XXXX XXXXXXXX has stated that she worked at XXXXXXXX via Rice Consulting as Recruitment Coordinator from 02/2018 – 06/2018.

It is our policy to check all information given to us by our candidates regarding their employment history.

Please can you confirm the following as a minimum:

  • Candidates employment dates in DD/MM/YYYY – DD/MM/YYYY format (month and year format as a minimum)
  • Candidates job title
  • Candidates reason for leaving

Please reply by work email including your full name, job title and contact number OR post it to FAO XXXXXXXXX, XXXXXX XXXXXXX, 11th Floor, XXXXXXX.

Firstly, the capitalised subject line “URGENT” is usually reserved for my friend and African Prince/Retired Ugandan Colonel Ben Owusu, and was subsequently ignored for 24 hours. I was then emailed again the next day, being asked to “urgently respond to the below request”. Now maybe I’ve been in New Zealand too long, but is this is how we now interact with each other? Could the message not be slightly more human? A bit less Germanic in its directiveness and a bit more polite? Did they need the CAPITALS and the bold text? Why did they chase me in under 24 hours when they also suggested I could post them the details? I get that this is a volume game, but I’d be very surprised if us at Rice Consulting could make placements off the back of this reference, so maybe I’m just jealous?

I did respond of course, as I know the candidate might have to turn to prostitution if they didn’t find a job sharpish, but I also suggested a slightly more human and slightly less Nazi format for these emails. I am, unsurprisingly, still awaiting a response. So either I’m being a quaint New Zealander, or this is the future. What do you reckon?