A robust volunteer recruitment policy has a number of different steps, depending on the rigour of the recruitment process adopted by the voluntary organization. But one of the most overlooked areas is the importance of seeking, obtaining and verifying references that vouch for the character of an applicant.
While a character reference is necessarily a subjective test (one person's opinion of another person), they're one of the most useful ways to get to know your applicant in the short period of time that you have to conduct your recruitment process. Reviewing a reference and discussing it either in person or over the phone (or Skype or FaceTime etc) can give you an insight into your applicant that's potentially more valuable than any application form or background check, when done properly. In this article we look at what a character reference is; how many are right for your organisation's recruitment policy; the areas to explore in a reference; the importance of a consistent approach; and making sure you verify the reference given.
1. WHAT'S A CHARACTER REFERENCE?
A character reference is simply where one person (the referee) vouches for the reputation of another person (the applicant).
A character reference can be given in a number of different formats, but the usual ones include:
- Written reference
- Over the phone / FaceTime / Skype reference
- Face to face reference
The importance of a character reference can’t be overstated in the overall policy of recruiting new applicants wishing to become volunteers in your organization. They provide a volunteer manager with the unique opportunity to get endorsements from a number of different people who know the applicant well, and who understand that the endorsement being made is a crucial part of a voluntary organisation’s decision whether or not to recruit that person.
2. POSITIVE ENDORSEMENT OF AN APPLICANT
It this positive endorsement of an applicant that is so important. Unlike a criminal background check – which looks for the absence of an inappropriate criminal record, or presence of one at all - the character references speaks to the integrity and character traits of an applicant.
3. BELT AND BRACES
In the recruitment of volunteers, having a minimum of two volunteers gives you a Belt and Braces approach to seeking and obtaining the opinion of people who know the applicant well. Think of the first referee as the Belt, and the second referee as the Braces – if that’s helpful to you to think that way!
4. GETTING TO KNOW YOUR APPLICANT
Typically a reference form for a voluntary organization will ask a mix of the following questions:
- Length of time that the person giving the reference has known the applicant
- The capacity in which the person giving the reference has known the applicant
- The opinion of the character reference on the suitability of the applicant to do the voluntary job being applied for
Some character reference forms go a step further, asking the person giving the reference to rate the applicant on a number of attributes, e.g.
- Motivation of others
- scoring the applicant on each of these attributes on a sliding scale between
- Very good
Having a mix of questions that enquire into both the referee’s knowledge of the applicant (personal? professional? social?) and their opinion as to the character attributes of the applicant, gives the volunteer manager more tools to help them decide as to the suitability of the applicant for the volunteer position being applied for.
Consistency in your character references is important. Maintaining a stable suite of questions that you ask of your referees helps you to get a feel for how referees answer those questions, the more experience a volunteer manager gets under their belt. It’s also consistent with the principle of fairness, that you ask the same questions of the applicant, regardless of what that applicant is.
It’s important in your whole process of recruiting volunteers that you put confidentiality at the heart of that process. Asking someone to give their opinion of another person they know is one of the most inquiring, personal questions that one person can ask of another. Never share those views outside the people directly involved in the process of recruiting new volunteers.
7. VERIFYING THE REFERENCE GIVEN
Once you receive a character reference for an applicant, then having reviewed the reference given you have two choices:
- You can file the character reference away (“job done”); or
- You can validate the information given in the reference by picking up the phone and speaking to the person who provided the reference.
You can validate the information given in the reference by picking up the phone and speaking to the person who provided the reference.
Organisations take different approaches here. The validation of a character reference – whether it by phoning the referee, or in a face-to-face conversation, does take more effort.
Not all volunteer managers are comfortable phoning people up and discussing a reference given.
But the potential downsides of being pushed out of your comfort zone as a volunteer manager (speaking to strangers, the hassle of missed calls with a referee etc), are outweighed by the upsides of having that conversation and validating the information given.
More often than not, you’ll learn more in a brief conversation with the referee than in a written reference – the majority of the time confirming your interpretation of the reference provided.
On very rare occasions a person giving a reference may express a view on the phone or face to face that they might be reluctant to put down in writing – for that reason alone, the verification follow up with the referee tends to be viewed as worth the effort.
SUMMARY - 6 REASONS TO SEEK & OBTAIN CHARACTER REFERENCES