A pilot provided his future employer (West Atlantic UK) with a reference from "Desilijic Tiure" – an alias of Star Wars character Jabba the Hutt – and very nearly got away with it. The reference stated that he had previously worked as a captain, although all of his previous positions had actually been at the position of first officer. On realising this (after appointing him as a captain) West Atlantic UK gave him the opportunity to resign. Thereafter followed a breach of contract claim from the pilot for unpaid notice pay, and a counterclaim from West Atlantic UK for training costs. West Atlantic UK were successful in their legal action, but that isn't the key takeaway from this story. More importantly, the embarrassing reality is that West Atlantic UK, a reputable air cargo business that has been operating for over 50 years, clearly did not check the references of this individual before offering him employment.
How and why did this happen? Follow-up checks were clearly not carried out and as part of their case, West Atlantic UK admitted that they may not have hired the pilot had they known that he didn’t have the requisite experience. There are obvious dangers associated with having an underqualified pilot captaining a plane – but it is important to realise the risks associated with having anyone working for your business who you don’t know and who you haven’t carried out the appropriate checks on.
You don't have to request references from job applicants but if you do, you should always follow them up with the writer. Nowadays, many previous employers are so fearful of saying something that could result in legal action being brought against them by either the former employee or the new employer that they only give what we call a 'factual reference', i.e. job title and dates of employment. Nevertheless, references - whether factual only or not - can be a useful tool for employers who want to check employment history or dates of employment.
It's worth remembering that generally speaking, employers don't have to give a reference - albeit care should be taken if you refuse to give a reference that you are not discriminating against anyone, or breaching an implied duty of trust and confidence. With that in mind, if you request a reference and don't receive one, be careful not to draw negative inferences from that.
As an alternative to references, some employers rely more heavily on procedural checks and balances, such as DBS checks and right to work documentation. We're also increasingly finding that employers will trail through the acres of digital footprints that individuals tend to leave these days to gauge whether someone is the right 'fit' for their business.
If you've been asked to provide a reference, the crucial thing to keep in mind is that you mustn't make inaccurate or false statements. It's always worth including a disclaimer which states that the reference is given in good faith. Your business should have a dedicated individual to whom reference requests are passed to ensure a consistent approach. It's also worth considering implementing a reference policy for your senior managers outlining the business's approach and procedure, particularly in the event of an unexpected telephone call.
If you have any questions about providing or obtaining references, or need any help with running a recruitment process generally, please contact Claire or Rebecca in our employment team on 029 2048 2288.
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