It’s Time to Scrap Reference Checking – Here is Why

May 4, 2017

With all the talk lately centering around the words “disrupt” or “innovate” the fact is that many of the practices we do in recruiting is anything but. From lengthy, redundant applications to outdated interview methods to lousy candidate experiences, we still have a very long way to go before we truly “disrupt” or “innovate” our industry. There are definitely some big things that have changed, but we still have miles to go on a lot of our dated practices.

One such practice that I believe has gone the way of the dinosaurs (assuming Jurassic Park science is fiction, if not insert whole different reference here) are reference checks. Look – I see the value in the concept of doing these, but the reality is that the way we do them as a whole, they have long since lost value in the recruiting process and become much more of a “check the box” exercise.

This very topic came up in RecruitHUB recently in one of our many community discussion threads where we tackle any and all recruiting questions or issues our members have. The question from the member was simple:

“What is your position on reference checking candidates? “

Where do I begin?

This has been my “recruiting issue binky” for many years now. As alluded to earlier, I am no fan of how they are currently done in most organizations. What started years and years (and years) ago as a practice to verify what the candidate is saying is true and that this person is indeed a good potential hire, has become over the years (in most cases) a monotonous, time-wasting process that offers little value in its execution.

Why? Here’s my take (from both the employer and the candidate perspective):

What happens with references on the employer side:

You are doing something because it has “always been done this way.” The person checking the references is usually the recruiter – NOT the hiring manager who really should be having these conversations (really – it’s true).

Also, you are typically using a reference template or script with questions designed to either discredit or simply affirm the employee you are about to hire. On top of that, when you ask a candidate to provide you references what do you actually think you will get? Anyone with a brain and a pulse will provide you with people who will of course say great things about them – what candidate in their right mind wouldn’t?

On top of all of this, most companies/hiring managers rarely ever read them (much less perform them themselves – gasp!). They go to some file or ATS purgatory. Some of you even send email reference forms for references to fill out themselves because they have nothing else to do with their time. As someone who (as a reference) has received many of these over the years, it is not a good look for the employer and a major hassle for the reference too. Awesome stuff.

How the candidate thinks about references:

You have gone through the interviews and met the team. OK – the company wants to double check you are what you say you are. Cool – how about I go ask some people I know that will say good things about me (and sometimes TELL them what to say)?

I might be interviewing for several roles and have these people as references on those too, so I sure hope they are OK with several of these calls or “fill out this reference form” emails (please don’t do this – like ever. I beg you).

These people are also usually busy, so I will give you their contact information and hope you connect with them and figure out a mutual good time to talk. What’s that you say? It has been a week and you guys still can’t connect? OK – let me put every opportunity I am considering on hold while you folks figure it out. Also, most companies now will simply “by policy” verify only employment and tenure because we live in a crazy litigious society that will sue their asses if they say anything derogatory. So there’s that too.

This practice is more than broken – it is useless.

Soooo Mr. Smarty pants Ed – how do you fix it?

Here’s how: Trust that you are making the right decision on your due diligence with the candidate. Interview betterAssess better. Ask better/probing reference questions. Have them do the job in front of you, like whiteboard sessions or presentations on business plans or hypotheticals if they were in the job. Interviewing a sales person, for example? Have them sell what they are selling in their current job to you. Have them take you through their sales process. You get the idea.  And when it comes offer time, instead of “doing the dance” because “it has always been done this way,” if you MUST do references here is what I propose:

1. Hire a background check vendor to verify the information important to you like employment dates (are the candidates telling the truth), education (truth again – really this is what it has come down to), criminal background check and so on. (NOTE – NEVER, and I will say again in caps, NEVER have them do your references for you – only verification. You think you are doing a monotonous routine, imagine how they handle it. I have seen this firsthand as both a reference and an employer – they do more damage than you think).

2. Ask for the candidate’s former managers primarily – and be reasonable. Have the hiring manager do them if at all possible as it is potentially their new hire so it should be very important to him or her. No, it is not OK to ask for their current manager (and companies actually do this) and not OK to mandate to speak to managers from jobs 15 years ago either.

3. If you are going to do #2, have an actual game plan of what you hope to achieve from these references. If you are doing assessments and proper interview techniques, identify areas you want to discuss further instead of the generic standard BS “do the dance” questions. How about questions on how best to work with/manage them and what was successful in the past in doing so?

4. My favorite option – don’t do them at all or just do the basics (employment verification, criminal check, etc). Be better at your job and training hiring managers to do theirs. No reference is going to stop a candidate from sucking at interviewing. So as most (if not all) references provided are going to be positive unless the person is a moron -- what is the point? If you can interview and assess effectively references are just an exercise in repetition

My colleague J.T. O'Donnell doesn’t quite 100% agree with me though. Hear her take and more as we debate this issue here on RecruitHUB.

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