What’s the use-by date on references?

I think there’s a natural expiry date on how long you can ask referee favours of former employers, work mates and friends – or there should be. I’m all for writing reference letters for people when I can honestly vouch for their skills, attitude and relevance for the role they’re seeking. I try to customise it to focus on their strengths and when asked I try to genuinely share a shortfall in a good light. I did, however, recently and regretfully decline to give a reference (again) for someone that I briefly worked with on a committee more than 12 years ago because I no longer even know where she lives or works, let alone whether she is suited to a job I had no idea she was going for.

Surely that’s fair?

I also think it’s too much of HR managers to expect me to complete 5 or more pages of written answers to selection criteria on someone’s behalf – I’m not going for the job, after all! Referees put their own credibility on the line when recommending others so I think a little heads up and consideration for our time and input is not much to ask.

My tip:

I now ask recruiters if we can simply have a phone discussion because it’s simpler for me, as a sole business owner, to provide feedback that way than write an essay by their deadline. I’ve also decided that as a rule a decade is long enough if I employed someone; less if we worked together – because technology, skills, know-how and on the job aptitude have surely all advanced in that timeframe and I’m no longer able to comment on how awesome my former colleague has become.

Basically, by the 10 year milestone if we’re unlikely to go for drinks together – or at least promise we might but never do it, like real old friends do – then I shouldn’t be on your list of referees, really.

Please feel welcome to reply to me in the comments, I love your feedback.