Referees for Your Government Job Application

A government recruitment process can take many forms, but usually consists of 3 things:

  1. Shortlisting (based on the written application)
  2. A structured behavioural interview (usually just one, as opposed to two like in the private sector)
  3. Reference checks with supplied referees.

Referee reports are the most objective and reliable source of information about an applicant's on-the-job performance. In comparison to an applicant's self-report of their performance, reference checks are used to confirm information presented by the applicant, and to clarify areas of ambiguity or concern.

How referees are used

Most selection panels will seek oral comments in preference to written reports, however around 5% of government selection panels will ask you to bring a written reference report to your interview. Unless exceptional circumstances apply, applicants should not be asked to provide written referee reports with their applications.  However, it's still done particularly when there are very tight recruitment deadlines, your referee is going to be unavailable or your referee is on the selection panel. In most other cases, this is merely a lazy move by the selection panel.

If referees are asked for in the information pack, ensure you provide them. If you are providing names and phone numbers of referees, request permission from your referees before hand, and provide them with a copy of your application.

Many panels call referees before interviews as part of the shortlisting process. If this is the case and you don’t provide referee details, don’t assume the selection advisory committee will follow you up to ask for them – you may have just shortlisted yourself out of the process by not providing the requested information. If referees are not specifically asked for, you do not have to provide them at this stage, and you can state on your resume “referees will be provided at interview.”

How to select your referees

When selecting referees, ensure that they can comment on your work-related qualities, and your ability to perform in a given position in a recent capacity. Your boss from ten years ago is not sufficient, nor is a colleague or a friend. Most organisations will want a reference check from your most recent employer, however, in certain sensitive situations, they may accept other suggestions.

It is important to select referees who are supportive of you and who will provide positive comments about your work abilities and work-related qualities. It is okay if your preferred referee is on the panel, in most cases they will need to provide a written reference against the selection criteria before the commencement of the selection process, so make sure you ask them to be a referee before you submit your application.

It is always a good practice to contact your referees before, or immediately after your interview to ascertain their ability to provide a reference check. It is no use providing their details if they are on holiday, or will be in a conference for a week. Providing your referees with more details of the position you have applied for, and ideally, a copy of your application, will enable them to provide more useful information to the selection panel.

You may not know about reference checks...

You should be aware of the following, often unknown points regarding reference checks and your job application:

  • The number of referees to be contacted is at the discretion of the selection panel. While most government departments have a requirement to conduct at least one referee, sometimes they don't (again, laziness) and sometimes they contact multiple referees.  

  • Information sought from your referees could cover all or just some of the selection criteria. Referees should be giving information such as examples of work performance and levels of productivity, and not commenting on personal traits.

  • Panels are not limited to seeking reports from people nominated by an applicant. However, the applicant should be notified if alternative referees are sought. If you haven't provided details for your current supervisor, don't be surprised if you get a call from the selection panel asking to contact them. If you would prefer they didn't, or this could put your current job in jeopardy, you can say no. But, be aware, that if the selection committee can't perform a satisfactory reference check, you may find yourself out of the draw.

  • The applicant’s current direct supervisor should typically be contacted. Other views should be sought where there are differences of opinion on the applicants’ abilities or where there are indications that the supervisor’s views might be unreliable or if the supervisor has insufficient knowledge of the applicant’s work performance.

  • If you are in strong contention for the job and receive what would be considered a 'poor' reference check that would materially affect the panel’s assessment, natural justice principles dictate that you must be given an opportunity to respond.

  • Reference checks may be delegated to a non-committee member to complete, such as a recruitment company or scribe, however, privacy and confidentiality principles must be adhered to. If you are concerned that your details are going to people, not on the selection committee, you should talk to the selection chair or delegate.

  • Sometimes, reference checks are used as the primary form of assessment. This is usually when the selection panel already knows the pool of applicants, or there is a highly technical position being recruited for with a small pool of applicants. If this is the case, you should be notified of this in advertisements or selection documentation, and the selection committee should complete the reference checks themselves (as opposed to delegating to a non-committee member). You should also be given the opportunity to respond to your referee's comments unless the difference between applicant suitability at the conclusion of the recruitment exercise is large.

  • If your referee is also a member of the selection panel, comments should be provided by the referee in writing before the start of the assessment process. It is in your best interest to make sure this happens.

Further reading:

What are my responsibilities as a referee? Information in section 3.5 of the APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice by the Australian Public Service Commission
The right to read your employment references By The Sydney Morning Herald
Our referee report for selection panel members

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