The Big Reference Check Scam!

I remember when I started my first job in Talent Acquisition and HR, I totally believed checking references was going to lead me to better, higher quality hires. My HR university program practically drilled into me the belief that “past performance predicts future performance.”

For all I knew those words were delivered on tablets from Moses himself!

After all, what better way is there to predict a candidate’s future success than to speak with individuals who knew this person the best?

And it’s not just anybody: It’s former managers or colleagues who have previously worked with this person – directly or indirectly – and have a deep understanding of how they have performed, and now telling me how they will perform in the future.

Grand design at its finest.

About 13 seconds into my HR career I started questioning this wisdom. Call me an HR atheist if you must, but something wasn’t adding up to me.

It was probably around the hundredth reference check when I started wondering either I was the best recruiter of all time and only find rock stars (which was mostly true) or this reference check thing is one giant scam!

Everyone knows the set up: The candidate wants the job, so they want to make sure they provide good references. The candidate provides three references that will tell HR the candidate walks on water. HR accepts them and actually goes through the process of calling these three perfect references.

When I find out that an organization still does reference checks, I love to ask this one question: When was the last time you didn’t hire someone based on their reference check?

Most organizations can’t come up with one example of this happening. We hire based on references 100% of the time.

Does that sound like a good system? Now, I’m asking you, when was the last time your organization didn’t hire a candidate based on their references?

If you can’t find an answer, or the answer is ‘never’, you need to stop checking references because it’s a big fat waste of time and resources! There’s no “HR law” that says you have to check references. Just stop it. It won’t change any of your hiring decisions.

New ways of checking references that checkout

So, how should you do reference checks? Here are three ideas:

1. Source your own references

Stop accepting references candidates give you. Instead, during the interview ask for names of their direct supervisors at every position they’ve had. Then call into those companies and talk to those people. Even with HR telling everyone “we don’t give out references,” I’ve found you can engage in some meaningful conversations off the record.

2. Automate the process

New reference checking technology asks questions in a way that doesn’t lead the reference to believe they are giving the person a ‘bad’ reference, but just honestly telling what the person’s work preferences are. The information gathered will then tell you if the candidate is a good fit for your organization or a bad fit — but the reference has no idea.

3. Use fact checking software

Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. have made it so candidates who lie can get caught. There is technology being developed that allows organizations to fact-check a person’s background and verify if they are actually who they tell you they are. Estimates show that 53% of people lie on their resume. Technology makes it easy to find out who is.

Great Talent Acquisition and HR pros need to start questioning a process that is designed to push through 99.9% of hires. Catching less than .1% of hires isn’t better quality. It’s just flat out lazy.

Start thinking about what you can do to source better quality hires and your organization might just think you can walk on water.

Your turn: What are your tips for checking references?

6 thoughts on “The Big Reference Check Scam!

  1. Tim,
    I always do reference checks. Always. I work off the application, so I have a signed release and if a cannot says I can not contact, I won’t…BUT as long as it’s a yes, I’ll call the supervisor and much like Michael’s experience – simply say, “Bob” is on our short list for this role. We want him to succeed if we offer the job. What can we do to increase his chance for success? Also – Always do an income verification. Had a marketing pro at the offer stage. He fudged his experience. Was on the phone with the prior CEO at 5:30 on a Friday and the CEO was saying (insert veiled tone here) “Amy, all I can tell you is that “Bob” worked for us from x to y. You can infer what you need from there.” We gave “Bob” the opportunity to provide additional “updated” documentation, to provide tax data – anything to support his view and he couldn’t. At the end of the day, we pulled the offer due to his choice to lie on his app. Check your work. Always.

  2. Tim,
    I’ve thought that reference checks were bunk for a long time. Company requires them, candidate provides softballs, company checks refs and they are AWESOME! shocking…

    I still do reference checks, but they are a little different now. You suggested checking references you source yourself. I am not a fan of that for 2 reasons. 1) I don’t like the idea of potentially going behind the candidate’s back. I know people do it, and to each their own, but I find it deceptive. Unless you say to tell the candidate “By the way, I’m going to do a reference check on a few people you DIDN’T provide me” it doesn’t feel right to me. 2) I personally experienced being at the brunt of a bad ref check when I was in my mid-30s. The reference was a coworker (not supervisor) that worked with me 10 years earlier when I was in my 20s and said I was ‘arrogant’ and thrived in ‘bucking the system’. At the time, we BOTH were barely new managers and competitive. I’m confident I’ve worked a few kinks out in the past 20+ years, but my former coworker and I hadn’t worked together in since I left the company. To her, I was frozen in time as an arrogant ass. I probably was! I’d like to think I was less of one when I was interviewing with this company, but that was my stamp.

    Now, I like to ask these questions in a ref check: ‘How could be even better than they are now?’
    ‘What development advice would you give if you had the opportunity?’

    These usually lead to some follow up questions, but I preface them by saying ‘We’re really interested in Kelly, which is why we’re at the reference check stage. I want to understand the whole picture, so I’m want to find out about the areas she’s continuing to grow in. By the way, I believe development areas are good, they won’t necessarily prevent her from getting an offer”

  3. Great article and very true and accurate point Tim. I very much agree and appreciate you putting what I’ve been saying for some time to my managers in writing! As always, great job and Thanks!

  4. You believe in doing reference checks; just not calling the ones the candidate gives you? I’ll be honest, I have never done a reference check. I’m not saying this is right or wrong but the system we use and the panels we put our candidate’s through for the most part work. However, nothing is 100% fool-proof.

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