In the UK we often rely on references to get a job. If you have never worked anywhere else, you probably aren't aware how alien the concept is abroad. Some countries use them, but do them differently, some just don't understand the concept at all.
I remember when André first came to the UK to work and was asked for a reference. His company simply refused, saying it didn't know what that was. Fortunately, he still got the job. Recently I became very aware of the disadvantages of this once again through foreign contacts.
Last week I was asked to proofread a reference given by a Danish academic for student looking for a fellowship in the US. The reference was extremely long (several pages), positive and very gushing. He explained that he only wanted the English checked, he knew the reference seemed quite over the top from and English perspective but knew that that was the norm in the States. To read it, you would have believed you were employing possibly the nicest, cleverest person ever to walk the face of the Earth. That referee knew the game and was playing by the rules. Yesterday however another friend asked me to help with a reference. This time it was a German academic translating a French reference for a candidate to work in the States. The French candidate had worked in two schools. As I said above, the French are not great users of references. The two references this candidate was sending to the States in the hope of achieving employment simply said 'I confirm Mr X worked here in my school as a teacher, Yours faithfully Headmaster Y' Now if my Danish contact is correct and Americans like positive references, then this poor teacher doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting an interview, though he may be equally as suited to the job as the Danish candidate whose referee was more clued up. That's not ideal is it?
Thomas also amusingly told me of his own experience. When applying to work in the UK, he was asked for two references. One referee knew the system so wrote a few positives and sent them off, the other (a Dutch man) however didn't realize what form a UK reference takes so sent off a list of all the positive things he could find to say about him, and attached a list of areas where he could see need for improvement! Of course, this may be useful to the employer, but had the UK employer compared this to references he would have received about UK candidates, Thomas would of course have been at an unfair disadvantage. UK candidates would have areas they'd need to improve but these would not have been underlined in a UK reference. A UK employer who wasn't used to foreigners would probably have assumed Thomas was a less capable than normal employee if the referee had dared to point out areas for improvement.
I am tempted to say references are a minefield and not something we should be using in this new globalized work setting.