My recent experience with references has been next to useless. Should I just ditch them for future jobs?
I sympathise. In the past, references were taken very seriously for appointments - and I bet Buckingham Palace wish they still were! These days, they contain much less useful information. This is partly the result of legal problems.
The referee has to take care that a reference is not only factually accurate, but also ensure that it gives a fair and balanced view of the applicant's abilities and performance. If the referee is negligent in preparation, either giving inaccurate details or an unrepresentative view of the applicant, then they may be sued. If the reference is unduly negative or poor, the applicant can sue and, if it is overly complimentary about their skills and abilities, then the prospective employer relying on the reference may sue. So no wonder the value of references is diminishing.
A reference request is usually simply a letter from the organisation to the nominated referees. The job description is probably attached but no guidance as to exactly what the employer is asking for. This means that referees can write anything from the really useful to the generalised and useless.
What can be more useful is to ask a range of specific questions which relate to the job in question, for example, "what do you think of their fundraising abilities?", or "what is the candidate's record of change management?". You should ask for examples.
A little more difficult, but worth a try, are questions on performance, such as absenteeism or performance complaints. Even here, in these litigious days, you may not get referees to be completely candid in a letter. Maybe in this case a telephone discussion would be appropriate. But such calls also need to be structured.
Some organisations dispense with references for the interview process, taking them up only for the person to be appointed. The reference checks significant reasons why the appointment should not be confirmed. Certainly, I never appoint someone simply on the basis of a good reference. The cynics among us might suggest that really good references are often given where an employer is desperate to get shot of someone.
If you are going to use references, they are most reliable when they are structured, so that you can evaluate all the candidates on clear job-related criteria, and where you can get examples to back up (or not) CV 'boasts'.