Reference Checking for Employment is Dead!

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.


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


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 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.


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.


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?

One thought on “Reference Checking for Employment is Dead!

  1. I would be very interested in learning more of the “fact checking” regarding candidates by social media and how they plan to do that.

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