Skills for Care

Interview: the importance of references in social care

18 Sep 2023

5 min read

Skills for Care

  • Recruitment

We spoke with Dominic Headley, founder and director of Dominic Headley and Associates a specialist consultant, about the importance of references.

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.


What makes an effective reference?

It’s a detailed reference as opposed to a basic reference (employment verification) which would be just dates only. An effective reference includes information about a candidate’s conduct during the employment relationship 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. Social care staff and volunteers provide support for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Safer recruitment and robust vetting provides organisations with the first opportunity to deter and prevent those who may be unsuitable to work or volunteer in social care. Detailed effective references are an important and undervalued part of this process.

Many employers may have traditionally relied on Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks - another essential pre-employment check - to determine suitability of candidates, but recent changes to criminal record disclosure legislation means significantly less criminality information is provided to employers; and DBS certificates do not generally detail criminal convictions of foreign applicants – or UK applicants convicted overseas. 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 have recently worked with Skills for Care and other key partners to develop practical guidance for social care employers on Sharing effective references and conduct information.

Many of the 175 organisations we consulted with shared with us their greatest challenge was fear around repercussions of sharing sensitive information. While almost all the organisations requested detailed references, Many had a policy of only providing basic references. There was a common myth that data protection is a barrier to data sharing, so many organisations were reluctant to put concerns in writing and would only provide relevant conduct information ‘off the record’ over the phone, rather than in a written reference. However, the Information Commissioner (ICO) is very clear that data protection is never a barrier to responsible data sharing.

Time can also be a challenge, many of the organisations 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?

Use a range of robust vetting checks, including values-based recruitment, criminal record self-declaration, DBS checks and detailed references, at appropriate stages. This ensures that as much relevant information as possible is gathered about the conduct and suitability of a prospective employee from as many sources as possible to make the safest, fairest recruitment decision.

A focused application form can also be effective in gathering full employment history, reasons for leaving, gaps in employment and relevant conduct information e.g., details of investigation or disciplinary sanctions.

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.

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.

Remind the referee that they have a responsibility to ensure that any reference they provide is accurate, dependable and doesn't contain any material misstatement or omission. If they have concerns about the candidate's suitability to work with vulnerable people – they can provide the reference in confidence.


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 (including agency, bank staff and volunteers) is a fit and proper person. 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 recipient of the reference and also their safeguarding responsibilities to protect vulnerable people in the 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 a culture that applies a 360° approach to safeguarding in employment.

This makes best use of the induction, probationary period, and effective supervision as part of an ongoing culture of safeguarding and vigilance to identify for all staff or volunteers any behaviours or attitudes which may cause concern, and which may not have been shared in the references.

Organisations that put in place an efficient system for managing and recording safeguarding related conduct concerns, (e.g., low-level concerns, allegations), will benefit from gathering the information required to share effective references, and conduct information with the DBS and other relevant organisations when it might be required.

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


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


This article was originally published in September 2021. It was reviewed and updated in September 2023.

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