Why it’s important to check new recruits’ references

A recent employment tribunal ruling highlights the importance of having a robust recruitment and selection process, as Homa Wilson explains

In Francis-McGann v West Atlantic UK Ltd, airline pilot Mr Francis-McGann successfully applied for a position as a captain with West Atlantic UK Limited. It was only after he commenced training and started work that the airline discovered he had lied on his application. Not only had he provided a false reference from a false email address which purported to be from Desilijic Tiure (the alternative name of Star Wars villain Jabba the Hutt, pictured above), he also had no previous experience as a captain.

As an alternative to dismissal for gross misconduct, West Atlantic offered him the opportunity to resign ‘with immediate effect’, which he accepted. 

However, he subsequently issued a claim for three months’ contractual notice pay, which West Atlantic refuted and counterclaimed for £4,725, the costs it had incurred in training him.

The employment tribunal dismissed Mr Francis-McGann’s claim for notice pay. It noted that the employer had arranged training based on his alleged experience. Had the airline known that he had no experience as a captain they may not have hired him and so succeeded in claiming the training costs.

Points to consider

It’s surprising how many employers hire individuals without carrying out proper checks. 

People who lie during the recruitment process often do so because they are trying to conceal something. This can include lack of experience or an acrimonious departure from a previous employer. 

Worryingly, many candidates feel that embellishments are the norm. What is to one person a slight embellishment could in fact amount to outright deception. Employers should therefore proceed with caution. Failure to do so could result in the company being stuck with a problematic employee. Dismissing an employee, even after a short period of employment, can prove disruptive for the organisation. 

Most employers cannot afford to outsource such checks to specialist organisations. Below are some precautions all organisations can take to minimise risk:

  • Do the basics: Don’t accept a reference from a personal email address. Arrange to speak with the referee, obtain their work email address and ensure all communication is via a professional address. Check their work profile to determine they exist.

  • Avoid bland requests: A bland request for a reference will be met with a bland response and will tell you very little about the candidate. References can provide useful insight into a candidate’s suitability for the role. Be clear about information you need and ask direct questions. If the referee responds with a factual reference  – one which tells you very little about the candidate –  pick up the phone and speak to them. It’s often easier to get a better picture of the candidate this way.

  • Mind the gaps: If there are gaps in the applicant’s work history, ask why and obtain further information if necessary. 

  • Ensure offers of employment are made subject to satisfactory references: This should be clearly stated in the offer letter. This will allow you to immediately withdraw any offer of employment should the candidate fail to provide a suitable reference. More importantly, if something comes to light after employment has already commenced, you will be able to rely on the wording in the offer letter to immediately terminate the employee’s contract without the need to provide contractual notice.

Homa Wilson is an employment law partner at Hodge Jones & Allen