References: a hidden way to bully staff

There ought to be a fairer way of giving applicants the thumbs up or down, says Mike Fielding.

Jill Turner's suspicions have been confirmed. She now knows that the main reason she is not getting interviews for headships is not her application but the unsupportive reference from her headteacher.

She is a deputy in a large comprehensive and, after four years, is keen to move on. She has made nearly a dozen applications and been invited for only one interview. She has not seen her reference but a friendly adviser in a nearby authority has endorsed her fears.

"They were going to interview you until they got your head's reference," he told her, "but that put them off." He suggested she tackle her head about it. He has a policy of not showing references but agreed to let her look at one version: it was predominantly positive. But she is convinced that the reference he actually sent was much harsher. That belief is reinforced because the head's secretary says she didn't type any of the last four sent out.

It is the latest in a saga of problems between Jill and her head. For the first year they got on well and he saw part of his job as grooming her for headship. Then she questioned some of his decisions in senior management meetings and he cooled towards her. The hostility peaked when, speaking for other members of the team, she challenged an internal promotion the head wanted to make. "It's a Catch 22," she says, "if he writes a reference it will be damning and if I don't have him as my main referee, appointment panels are going to assume I'm trying to hide something."

She has no right to see her reference, but there is a piece of paper somewhere with words about her on it and, if she can get hold of it, she might be able to challenge its veracity.

More insidiously damaging is the "word in the ear" reference that differs from what is written. This is the case for David, a senior local authority officer. He has seen his written reference - blandly unenthusiastic but not directly damaging. The chief education officer who wrote it has many contacts and David believes he has telephoned them to prevent his being interviewed.

Like Jill, he has been given feedback - from a consultant hired by the authority to help with the appointment - which strongly suggests it is his boss who is blocking his way. Again, there is a history of disagreement between them.

What can Jill and David do? Legally, very little, though conact with their professional associations could help. A reference is an expression of opinion about a person's suitability and is thus difficult to challenge. Their best practical strategy is to be open in their application about the relationship and suggest that the panel should not give undue weight to their first referee's views. Some governors may not be influenced; others may see it as an expression of David and Jill's independence and determination.

But candidates for jobs should not be put in that position. References should be open and discussed with the candidate. Appointment panels should refuse to countenance comments that the referee is not prepared to stand by when challenged. This need not make references too bland to be useful: anyone in a position to write them should have the courage to tackle difficult situations.

The open reference is an important professional development opportunity that enables candidate and referee to have serious dialogue about the future and to plan training or development experiences. The process reduces the scope for unskilled "reading between the lines" that remains part of appointment culture in many places. The dilemma would be resolved if education abandoned the practice of pre-interview references. Other sectors use them only as a final check on the suitability of candidates they want to appoint. A referee who knows the panel and has already spent time with the candidate could only provide facts that are easily justified and would not distract the panel with opinions that owe more to personal animosity than professional perception.

This would help Jill and David to avoid feeling powerless and enable them to reach the start-line for promotion on their merits. It would also avoid some of the agonising that good referees undergo to ensure that what they write is honest, fair and helpful to the appointment panel and their colleague. One thing is clear: no referee should be allowed to thwart ambition for any reason other than genuine belief in the person's lack of ability to fulfil the post in question. That, in turn, imposes a responsibility on the referee who feels unable to support an application to say so and to do something constructive about the candidate's shortcomings. Hiding behind the secret reference or the confidential briefing is a form of bullying unsuitable for our highly accountable times.

Names in this article have been changed to avoid embarrassment

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