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Sep 21

Interview: the importance of references in social care

Posted: 22 September 2021

To manage a safe and fair recruitment process in social care, comprehensive and effective references for new candidates is vital.

We spoke with Dominic Headley, founder and director of Dominic Headley and Associates a specialist consultancy providing training and advice to employers to support safeguarding and safe and fair recruitment, to find out more about how to gain and provide effective references and why this is so important in the social care sector.

Can you tell us, what makes an effective reference?

It’s a detailed reference as opposed to a basic reference which would be just dates only. An effective reference includes information about a candidate’s conduct within an employment and their reasons for leaving, which is a vital element of any social care reference.

Why is it important to gather effective references?

It’s absolutely critical because social care staff and volunteers provide support for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Many employers may have traditionally relied on criminal record checks - another essential pre-employment check - to determine suitability of candidates, but recent changes to criminal record disclosure legislation means significantly less information is provided to employers. So, now more than ever, employers are going to be reliant upon all the information they’re gathering through the recruitment process to determine the suitability of a candidate.

What are some of the biggest challenges for employers when providing and requesting references?

There’s a multitude of challenges. We recently consulted with over 175 organisations and the greatest challenge was fear around repercussions of sharing sensitive information.

While almost all organisations will request detailed references, they’ll have a policy of only providing basic references. Organisations can also be reluctant to put concerns in writing and may only provide relevant conduct information over the phone, rather than in writing.

Time is also a challenge, organisations have told us that gathering and providing references can be incredibly time consuming.

A lack of user-friendly processes for easily sharing data can also be an obstacle, for example a split of information between HR and safeguarding teams, where not everyone has access to all information.

What are some of the solutions to these key challenges?

One of our key pieces of advice would be that there are other parts of the recruitment process, before the reference stage, which can all contribute to how we gather important information – for example including information about employment gaps or disciplinaries within the application form.

We’d also recommend that the organisation puts in place a process for chasing references regularly.

A tip to help with providing references, would be to ensure that when a candidate leaves a role their relevant information is recorded in an exit form which can then be used to build the basis of a reference for any future employers.

Also, where this information is split across different teams make sure that these teams meet and discuss regularly.

If the employer has concerns about sharing sensitive information, they can provide the reference in confidence. Data protection law now protects both the provider of a reference and the recipient from having to provide a copy of confidential reference to the applicant should they request it.

What top tips would you give a provider who’s requesting a reference?

Firstly, ensure that the candidate’s details are valid and accurate, that the organisation they’ve listed as previous employment exists, that the referee stated is employed in the position listed, and is authorised to provide a reference. Always contact a specific referee, rather than send an open reference request to the organisation.

If there are separate safeguarding and HR departments make sure that the appropriate information is being received from both departments.

What legal responsibilities do employers have to gather and share effective references?

Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulated organisations have a legal responsibility to ensure that any person they employ is fit and proper to work. There’s certain information which employers must gather and store and be able to make available – such as criminal records, and they must have satisfactory evidence of conduct in any previous employment where the individual worked with children or vulnerable adults.

Employers must also obtain satisfactory verification as to why the candidate’s previous employment was ended, as well as full employment history together with satisfactory written explanation of any gaps in employment.

If an employer doesn’t provide a detailed reference, they could be failing in their duty of care to both the applicant and the wider safeguarding community.

If you’re using an agency to help you source staff, you need to ensure that they also following the appropriate safeguarding processes.

A full list of the requirements be found within CQC Regulation 19.

What if a candidate is new to social care or it’s their first job?

All candidates should still provide full employment and voluntary work history, or training history if they’ve just left school or college.

If there’s information which the employer can’t gather, they should conduct a risk assessment detailing the steps they’ve taken to gather all appropriate information, and what they have in place to mitigate any missing information - for example a prolonged induction period with a higher level of supervision.

What else can employers do to support safer employment processes?

It’s equally important to embed within an organisation a ‘safeguarding culture.’ This means making best use of the induction and probation period and ongoing supervision as part of a safeguarding culture on an ongoing basis. Also looking at what processes are in place for recording and managing any safeguarding concerns with staff.

Dominic Headley and Associates can provide further tailored advice on references and safeguarding.

For more recruitment advice and information visit our #RecruitmentReady spotlight.