in Careers Advice, Changing Jobs, Employers, Job Applications

What Makes a Good Job Reference

What makes a good job reference?

We often get job offers for our candidates which involve a clause to say that the offer is subject to satisfactory references.  A few times during the last 16 years, we have experienced difficulties getting hold of a satisfactory reference but the vast majority of references are very straightforward.

But rather than a satisfactory reference, what constitutes a good reference?

Locum References

For locums, the best references are those where a client emails us as the agents (we  run our locum service via to say what a fantastic job the locum is doing and how pleased they are that they took them on. This does happen more often than we expect it to and we are always pleasantly surprised to receive these.

When sending out that particular locum’s CV to other clients, we try to make sure that we remember to include this with the CV as it makes a real difference to the prospects of employment.

The second best type of reference for a locum is that obtained by a pro forma reference from other agencies which requires the client to tick a box and include any comments at the bottom. This usually gives the locum either a clean bill of health or indicates areas of concern.

The reference provided can be the start of lots of work or the end of any work because most agencies have a similar policy to us in that we do not put forward locums to roles if we have had more than one negative reference in the past. Whilst it is quite obvious that there will always be personality issues between employers and locums, and that these can impact on opinions expressed in references, there are only so many times we can allow a locum to go for roles before we have to make a judgement as to whether it was just a personality issue or whether there is something wrong with that locum’s work.  As company policy, we are very strict that two references is the end of a locum’s career with us.

Sometimes, we pick up references from our clients’ locums that are on our books that we are not currently putting into a particular position. For example, we are sometimes contacted by firms to say that they have a locum in from another agency but it’s turning out to be a total nightmare with a list of reasons why it’s a total nightmare and then we will usually ask for that locum’s name.

In the past, these locums have occasionally been on our books as well and as a matter of policy, again if we know the clients and have never had any problems with them ourselves, and the list of complaints is justified, then we will not use that locum ourselves in future. For example, we have recently had an occasion when a client telephoned us to say that their current locum was busy trying to syphon off their clients and was spending the vast majority of his time phoning round other agencies to try and get work and claiming that he had a following of clients to come with him. Naturally, we did not want to work with this locum in the future!

Permanent Job References

For permanent candidates, the reference serves a different purpose. Firstly, if a firm is LEXCEL accredited then every member of staff, as we understand it, has to have at least one reference, if not two. One of these references has to be a recent employer although not necessarily the most recent.

We have had instances where firms have insisted on a reference from the most recent employer. However the candidate has refused to allow them access to the most recent employer because they have either fallen out with them or the candidate is very aware that the reference is not going to be very good, especially when their most recent employer finds out they are leaving.

We do not recommend that employers force the issue because very often it

a) creates bad will for the new employee just about to start with the firm but already in conflict with their new employer; and b) such a reference is very unlikely to be either truthful, accurate or objective.

The most recent employer will always feel that the candidate has been disloyal to them and as a result will be reluctant to provide an objective reference.

It is often better to ask a candidate for either a recent employer, someone who has worked with them or seen their work in the past 2 to 3 years. These types of references can be much more useful than one from a bitter former employer. The sole purpose of a permanent reference is really to confirm dates of employment and that there have been no recent issues in the workplace over the past 4 to 5 years.

If the candidate has been with a larger employer then it is fairly common for the reference to be a total waste of time apart from to confirm dates of employment. Larger employers and more cautious employers will often refuse to give anything other than the dates of employment and claim it is company policy not to provide anything else.

Quite hypocritically, the same employers will often ask for a detailed reference from other employers and be quite surprised when they don’t get one. Such reference requests are common and the provision of dates rather than any other information can be really frustrating and also detrimental to the candidate because it then makes the employer wonder if there was something wrong with the candidate which is why the employer is refusing to provide any other information.

Whilst we, as recruiters, appreciate the legal issues that arise from a reference, should any of the information be inaccurate, it is very frustrating that the same organisation who refused to provide a reference are often those with the longest list of details of information they want from potential employees in their requests from other firms.

The best form of reference for a new employer is simply to telephone the reference and have an off-the-record chat with them. This usually results in a straightforward reference being provided and information given that would not necessarily be in writing. However, again we recommend airing on the side of caution when it comes to relying on references because everyone has different reasons for the information that they give when speaking to potential new employers. Former employers may want to be rid of someone and give a fantastic reference knowing that the person is really not a good prospect at all. A quick example of this was a firm in Nottingham many years ago who actually telephoned round agencies putting forward a candidate and recommending to the agents that they introduce them to somewhere else. A reference was even provided, but left the agents scratching their heads as to why a law firm would want to give a good reference for someone they were trying to get rid of.

This again demonstrates that a reference should be taken in context and along with all the other factors before terminating a job offer off the back of one.

What will a good job reference contain?

A good reference will state the following :

•    Confirmation of a start date and end date.
•    The reason why their relationship ended – e.g. redundancy or end of assignment.
•    The employer’s opinion of the candidate’s work.
•    The employer’s opinion of the candidate’s ability to get on as part of a team.
•    Confirmation that the employer would use the candidate in future should the need arise.

This applies for both types of reference, locum and permanent.

Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of Ten Percent Legal Recruitment and writes regularly on the legal profession and job applications. You can contact him at

Jonathan Fagan

Jonathan Fagan LLM FIRP is Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment. He has been recruiting solicitors and legal support staff for law firms and in house legal departments for over 20 years and handles roles from junior fee earners through to partners and law firm sales/purchases. A non-practising solicitor on the Roll since 2000, he is also the author of a number of legal career books, which are available at You can contact Jonathan at