The personal reference: an invaluable, disinterested source of extremely useful information on potential candidates about a person’s real personality, ability, values and work style? Or a pointless paper chase that legal requirements have rendered worse than useless?

From the teacher’s input on the university application form to the “good character” statement in certain court appearances, the reference remains a cornerstone in the whole selection and appraisal process. It should be an ideal tool: you can obtain cheaply and easily, nowadays mainly by phone. The reports of (many) others who (really) know the person in a variety of circumstances. Those who have studied, worked and played with the candidate. Seen them in different moods, in different situations, facing different obstacles.

If the best predictor of the future behaviour is past behaviour, surely detailed reports on that past behaviour will provide the very best prognostic information that a selector could possibly want.

Ask anybody “who knows you best?” and men say “my wife” though interestingly not all women say “my husband”. Aah, but would they (ever) give a frank appraisal of their husbands, except of course in the divorce court?

One of the problems with referees is essentially the same as with interviewers. It is the impact of the personality of the referee on the reference. How insightful, honest and literate is the referee? Not all referees are equally perceptive about people. Nerdy, techy types can find (all) people problematic. Just like those with autism spectrum disorders, they may have little insight into others’ emotions and motivations; hence their references would be worthless.

Referees can have a very different ‘take’ on the same person even when given very much the same data. Some have a shrewd, clinical assessment, soon getting below the surface acting. Others seem impervious to the beliefs, values and motives of people they work with and for.

Next there is the problem of literacy. References are written or spoken. But no matter how insightful a person, if they have a restricted, limited or amateur vocabulary they may never really be able to communicate their impressions.

Third, their mood, indeed their moodiness can have an effect. Get them on the wrong day and their ‘negative affectivity’ is projected onto others. Find them after a morale-boosting success and this spills over onto the candidate reference.

References are meant to describe behaviours, but of course they can be just as much an index of liking and “fit.” By-and-large we are attracted to people like us. Extraverts seek out fun-loving, optimistic party-goers. The tender-minded, empathic, agreeable types search for like minded companions.

So the personality of the referee has a powerful impact on the style, tone, indeed encoded messages in the reference. For easy proof compare half a dozen references for the same person and note the differences.

And there is another problem. It is evolved from our old friend sociobiology again. First, mating interest. Would it surprise you to find that men (of all ages) write longer and more positive references about younger (prettier) women than all other types? Second, tit-for-tat reciprocity. I do you a good-turn i.e. write a spuriously positive reference, and at a later date I expect you to return the favour.

Of course this happens. Observe some secret societies. Or try looking at authors’ reviews of each other’s books; the comments on the back cover. I scratch your back, you comb mine.

Some researchers have even proposed that a good way to assess people’s suitability for managerial positions may be to content-analyse their letters of reference. See what they say and how they say it. The results may give one real insight into their personality and their values.

But could you make references any more reliable? One way is to promise anonymity, but this remains ever more difficult to guarantee given the porous nature of email. Another is to rank people, or say whether they are in the top 1%, 5%, 10%, 25% of candidates you have ever known. Trouble with this is that everyone is ‘above average’ grade inflation creeps in.

Better still, give referees a forced choice, especially for negative behaviours. Is the individual more likely to (a) take excessive sickies, or (b) liberate office stationery. More likely to (a) turn in shoddy work, or (b) bad mouth the boss? Overall this method can generate some really interesting stuff, but there are some ethical and statistical problems associated with it.

Some recommend classifying the content of referees by counting the words. A number of references to time issues and that may be a problem. Some referees—particularly the English—have learnt to code negative features brilliantly. “Always gets there in the end,” could mean dim-witted plodder, or slap-dash impulsive.

The idea of the double-meaning quip is to signal to others the real issue. So references become a code of the kind you find in newspaper obituaries: ‘he loved life’ means he was a disinhibited, amoral hedonist; ‘he never married’ means he was gay; ‘he was a bon viveur’ means he was a drunk.

So, like every aspect of selection, obtaining a simple, accurate reference is not necessarily straightforward. Some simple points: begin by deciding what precisely you want to know about a candidate; second, find the people who might have that information, and do a bit of homework on them. Ask them clearly what you want to know in different ways. Listen carefully to what they are saying. And bear in mind you may end up knowing more about the referees than the candidates!

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