Tom Sweeney

It's a coming of age tale….

References Checks: Decreasing in value…

Posted by sweens on May 19, 2009


I would argue that reference checks are becoming decreasingly valuable in the current hiring practices of the labour market and can often be expendable. Having done many of them in my short time in the recruiting industry, I have found them to be more of a formality then anything – and they offer little insight into my candidates that I did not already know through speaking to them.

Reference checks are an immeasurable way to measure the qualities or achievements of any given individual. Reference checks are subject to interpretation and manipulation more times then not. Everyone is able to find someone in their past who can provide them with a positive reference – so can that information really be seen as accurate?

We now work in an environment where it is not socially acceptable to provide negative references on former employees or co-workers. However most of the time, the negative information is really what you are digging for from a reference. Most candidates will be happy to tell you all the good things about themselves – but it is the negative things you need to unearth. But if you can not get that information out of your references, why bother?

Some companies will not even give a reference these days. It is a policy some HR departments make on behalf of their company and everyone else must abide by the policy. Not so great for employees coming out of that company.

But the problem does not sit solely with the person providing the reference or the candidate who names the references. The problem also lies with the person checking the reference. Many times, recruiters can ask questions that walk the reference down the road you want your reference to go. Tailoring questions to your candidate and having your reference legitimize your candidate.

 Is this good?

Yes it is – for you – but it defeats the purpose of the reference check. This system of checking a reference is no different then interviewing a candidate and asking those questions you want answered which serve only to screen your candidate in to your job. This method simply ends up matching your candidate to the job you have rather then evaluating your candidates experience and their needs to the needs of your client.

Ultimately, I feel that reference checks are becoming a less effective measure of someone’s ability, or as any of kind of metric, as was perceived in the past. Companies and recruiters should strive to find a better approach to measuring the completeness of someone’s previous work history, rather then conducting some ‘old school’ reference check.

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2 Responses to “References Checks: Decreasing in value…”

  1. Matthew Wu said

    I agreed with your assessment. That is why I felt very comfortable using your services.

    For experienced professional like myself, our skills are transferrable to different industry, therefore our recent references may not necessary match or be useful to the available opportunities. There are other references, such as volunteer works and others, that can give an overall picture of the individual’s abilities, work ethnic and integrity.

    Negative reference, without solid proof, are unfair to individual, especially if it is flawed, biased, and/or rumored — it is like guilty till proven innocent. Neutral reference served only to protect the company’s interest, but it does very little for the individual, since it also prevent any positive/constructive feedbacks as well.

    Reference check is absolutely important, but if it become a barrier to find the suitable candidate or filtered out the excellent one in a discriminating manner, then it become counter-productive.

  2. Ya know, it’s too bad that references just aren’t that useful anymore. In the past, when I used to do them all the time, they often helped me, but as time went on, more and more, the responses were pretty useless – no one wanted to say much about the candidates.

    Really, in the past, there was only one question I cared much about, would you re-hire this person? Few people would say “no”, but any hesitation on their part, and you could guess they were trying to find a polite way of saying “no”.

    I think doing your due diligence when interviewing candidates can make up for the less-than-useful references. Sure, some people interview well and turn out to be horrid employees, but I’ve found that those people can usually find someone to be a sterling reference.

    Here’s where I think references can be useful: if a candidate is not giving any recent supervisors as references, that can be telling; if their references are former colleagues rather than supervisors, that can be telling; if you ask about contacting the most recent supervisor, the response can be telling. So, although I agree with your point, asking for references can be a good test – even if the reference check will be pretty useless.

    (And I will admit, when I first had a job hiring people, I wanted my reference checks to confirm a decision I had already come to about a candidate – which was a pretty stupid way to approach reference checks.)

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