The decline of references is a helping hand to mediocrity

They have been almost contentless for years, ever since the subjects were granted the right to read them

News & Analysis

18th February 2016

A few years ago the daughter of a medical friend of mine asked her boss for a reference. In return, he asked for a passport photograph so he could remember who she was. There had been so little contact between them that her name alone brought nothing to his mind.

It hardly needs saying that a reference in these circumstances could mean very little. But in any case it is a long time since references meant anything much. They have been almost contentless for years, ever since those to whom they referred were granted the right to read them. If he or she didn’t like what was written, he or she could complain: and since it is in the nature of complaints these days that they must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, no matter how obviously querulous, it is scarcely surprising that references were soon eviscerated of any meaning or content. Henceforth, the only sanction the poor referee had was to refuse to write a reference at all, though even this had its hazards.

I am old enough to remember the days when references actually said something about their subject. It never occurred to me that I had the right to read what my boss said about me, nor that he would be unfair in what he wrote. No doubt unfair things were sometimes written — a famously equivocal reference said ‘You will be lucky to get this man to work for you’ — but that was regarded as just a minor hazard of life, whose effects could be overcome. Just as the jury system is predicated on the belief that 12 people can put aside their prejudices for a time and decide a case purely on the evidence put before them (a belief that, on the whole, is well-founded), so it was felt that bosses on the whole did not let their idiosyncratic likes or dislikes cloud their judgment or make them vindictive.

The hollowing-out of references has more than one bad effect. It undermines honesty in human dealings. It promotes mediocrity or worse, since it both fails to reward the meritorious or punish the defective. It removes one of the motives for trying to do well in the eyes of one’s elders and betters, since it is all the same in the end. And it is a manifestation of a culture of mistrust.

It is, of course, not the only manifestation of that charmless culture. There was a system in the NHS of bonuses to hospital consultants, distributed by local committees of doctors. Known as merit awards, they could amount to a considerable sum and were particularly valuable because they were also pensionable. The disadvantage of this secretive system was that it could result in back-scratching; but on the whole it did reward merit as judged by such genuine criteria as contribution to research or exceptional clinical competence. A man might be regarded as meritorious though he did not otherwise fit in; distinction was rewarded.

The old system, based on trust, was replaced by a more formal one controlled largely by managers. Consultants now had to apply for awards, which were granted according to more bureaucratic criteria and which led to hoop-jumping like circus dogs. Consultants started to do things just so they could apply for awards. In other words, a formalised system led to more, rather than to less, corruption, though it was corruption of an insidious kind: the promotion of yes-men and the acceptance of unnecessary and unproductive tasks undertaken not for their own sake, but for the prospect of an increased pension.

The new system both levelled people down and (as was no doubt intended) made them subservient to managers. Furthermore, it changed the very character of people: under the old system the consultant had to be chosen, but under the new he had to promote himself, often by boastfulness. Rather than let others notice and reward his achievements, he had to bring them to the attention of managers: and often they were pseudo-achievements, such as the chairmanship of a committee; precisely the kind of ‘achievement’ that appeals to the bureaucratic mind.

This kind of selection by boastfulness now affects even the choice of medical students. It is not that their intellectual quality has gone down: on the contrary, it has probably gone up. But what is now required of them to gain entry to medical school is morally repellent, much worse than any possible defect that existed before. They now have to make a ‘personal statement’ about why they should be admitted, and this, of course, results in the most odious conformism; a kind of psychological cloning, as well as an invitation to untruth.

The son of a friend of mine applied to medical school and was turned down. He was told that, though he was academically qualified and admirable in many ways, his personal statement was not impressive enough. So he went a tutor who told him how to write his personal statement when he re-applied to the same medical school the following year. (In the world of spivvery that we have created, there is an allegedly private-sector opportunity in every procedural requirement.)

Having made his ‘personal statement’ more impressive with the paid help of his tutor in this dark art, he was admitted to the school that had refused him the year before. Needless to say, he had not changed in any way other than being a year older: but in a world in which the virtual is more real than the real, self-presentation has replaced theology as the queen of the sciences.

The decline of informality is the decline of trust. Everyone, especially anyone in authority, is now to be regarded as a mass of illicit prejudice that can be counteracted only by formal procedures. Unfortunately, such procedures have to be developed, instituted and carried out by human beings, generally not of the highest calibre (or they would be doing something else). He who can does; he who cannot regulates.


  • Philsopinion

    “The decline of informality is the decline of trust. Everyone, especially anyone in authority, is now to be regarded as a mass of illicit prejudice that can be counteracted only by formal procedures.”

    Indeed. Note the recent changes to UCAS forms.

  • Libertarian

    Superb article about a truly critical subject. Thank you. I’ve been deeply concerned about this issue for a long time. I’ve known people to give positive references to people persuaded to resign over serious allegations the positive reference being part of the ‘deal’.
    In terms of personal statements, while I agree with you in principle, we must acknowledge that the prospective medical students are also interviewed. Thus the personal statement becomes something the interviewers can refer to. But yes I do agree with your beautifully-put: ‘private-sector opportunity in every procedural requirement.’ Perhaps it was ever thus though?

  • JonathanBagley

    What the referee doesn’t say is as informative as what he does say and I always add at the bottom, “Please feel free to phone me on XXXXXX should you require further information.”

    • Sargon the bone crusher

      Typical weasel words
      from the oppressive overseer.

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    References are pointless. If a friendly chat between present and prospective employer is allowed as the precursor to an offer of employment, corrupt abuse of the individual by the owner of his or her rice-bowl is assured. Long live free individuals, and down with the humbug of the self-righteous, and thus usually abusive and repressive employer.

  • Ramspace

    I’ve noticed another, related trend. If one applies for a job with higher qualifications than other applicants but the managers don’t like you, they will vilify you in order to justify their decision. This makes internal applications very tricky; you force your own managers to dredge up and even invent disqualifications. . . .

  • Teacher

    In teaching the best references are given to the worst teachers – to get rid of them.

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    ” but that was regarded as just a minor hazard of life, whose effects could be overcome.”

    If you have money or connections no doubt, but if you don’t such a reference (written out of racism, sexism, jealousy or sheer spite) could end a career. As for

    “honesty in human dealings”

    if you’re being honest why wouldn’t you write whatever you liked? I have given terrible references for a staff member because they were terrible, and I could back up everything I said. If you can’t back up what’s been said then you’re either a poor boss or a liar.

  • dog2stay

    I’m about the same age as the good doctor, and we did our UCCA forms in the late sixties/early seventies. I suppose it was a “very, very long time ago”, but one thing I’m sure of in my dotage is that I didn’t make a ‘personal statement’!

    Kevin Morrison

    • Ruth Kesselman

      Actually, there was a box on the back of the UCCA form where one could write anything – generally personal information – in support of one’s application. However, it wasn’t a particularly large box – enough for perhaps 100 words – and it wasn’t compulsory to fill it in, IIRC. These days, the UCAS application demands a personal statement: it’s filled in on computer, and there’s a maximum of 4000 characters (including spaces), which is between 700 and 750 words. I spend several hours every autumn helping sixth-form students at the school where I teach to refine their personal statements, and I agree totally with the writer that the whole system is both stupid and corrupt.