You’re an Idiot if You Still Check References!

One thing really hasn’t changed in hiring in like fifty years. Before we hire someone, in certain higher-up levels within our organizations, we do this little dance. The dance is us asking you for “professional” references, that we must check before we can “officially” hire you, and you giving us such references, which are basically your friends.

Don’t think it’s a dance? Think it’s truly helpful in finding noticeably better talent? Answer me this one question:

How many candidates have you rescinded the offer to because they received a bad reference? 

Wait! WAIT! Let me first take a guess at your answer…Let me see thousands of candidates, hundreds of hires, divided by the square root of 73, and my answer is: ZERO!

I’ve asked this question to thousands of HR and TA pros, thousands of candidates and basically it’s like one out of a thousand, and even that “one” has a story! “Oh, sure, just last week Tim we rescinded an offer. So, we checked the references as usual, and everything came back that this candidate was Jesus-like, could walk on the water, all of that. But, our receptionist knew someone who went to school with this guy, who happens to know his girlfriend’s mother he broke up with two years ago and come to find out, he’s a loser!”

So, the references were fine, but…

Checking References in the traditional way that over 90% of organizations still use is a complete and colossal waste of time and resources! 

Look, I get it. It’s always been done this way, but the reality is this isn’t a quality of hire check, this is am I hiring someone who is stupid enough to not give me people who will at least say good things about me check. While you might still think that measure is valuable, it’s not. Traditional reference checking does not filter out enough candidates for it to be worth the amount of time and resources you put into it.

Now, I am a big fan of Reference Checking Technology, automated reference checking because this technology, on average, will eliminate around 10% of the candidates you want to hire, for very good reasons! Modern-day reference check technology is about helping you select candidates you see as technically a good fit, but you want to double-check the cultural fit.

Reference check technology also has a low resource impact. It’s automated so you aren’t having a real person track other people down to see how well you can all lie to each other. The questions that are asked, usually through email, are about a candidate’s preferences. I like to work in “X” way. The reference then is asked how they feel the candidate likes to work best on a spectrum of answers where both spectrums are positive. So, it’s hard for a reference to “game” the system.

Look, I hate calling you an idiot! 

I know you are checking references. Or at the very least, your executives think you’re checking references, because, let’s face it, they know nothing about hiring and science. They had their references checked back in the 1990’s, so they feel it’s something we must legally do or we’ll get fined or something. They have no idea!

Be better.

Stop checking references, manually. Start checking references using technology that will actually help you make a better hire. Also, don’t just take my word for it, or the word of one of the many reference check technology companies, prove it to yourself. Make some baseline measures you believe are important, test the technology on your next “X” number of hires, then check those measures again. Did you get better? Awesome. Did you stay the same or get worse? Hmmm, interesting, let’s dig into that! Continue to test and improve. Stop doing shit that makes you look like an idiot!


21 thoughts on “You’re an Idiot if You Still Check References!

  1. I gave valid reference letters to a potential company that was going to hire me. She still wanted to contact people who’s contact information had changed over the years and I couldn’t track down. She was still adamant about me giving her contact information to call people I couldn’t find so I told her to forget it. If you are that interested in digging up dirt instead of hiring a qualified candidate, your loss. I get so sick of these games employers play when someone is just trying to survive and support themselves. “The American Dream is more like an American Nightmare.”

  2. Pingback: How To Write An Employee Reference Letter (With Samples) - Arielle Executive

  3. I really wish employers would do away with reference checks. It really is stupid and a waste of time. The vast majority of people are going to put down their colleagues/friends as you mentioned. A lot of times people just put down a friend they’ve never even worked with but tell them what to say when the HR person reaches out. Ask me how I know. It’s completely pointless.

    Also, companies get bought out so contact information changes. Or a person may not keep in contact with former colleagues or supervisors.

    I just really hate that some companies and organizations haven’t evolved passed this.

  4. If you use SkillSurvey to automate this, you’re legitimately a terrible human being, however unintentionally.

    Requiring 4-5 references to fill out a long survey plus short answers is senseless. Making it a condition of keeping a job that’s already been offered is cruel.

    I’ve worked in the nonprofit sphere for years and watching someone be so excited they got the job only for this to be the single thing that burns them is heartbreaking. What is the point of doing this for an unskilled entry level position that requires a GED/HS diploma at most?

    Do you have any idea how hard it is to get the information to contact possible references when prior jobs are all in high turnover industries like retail? Even when they have their last manager’s info, they’re only ever willing to confirm employment.

  5. I always find the idea of reference checking laughable. Not only is the information a company can provide very limited, but who in their right mind would ever use a reference that wasn’t going to give them a glowing review?

    Thankfully, many companies in the UK don’t bother anymore as they recognise how worthless they really are. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts everyone posting here is from the US and is stuck in the past, refusing to adapt.

    As a real world example, I’m a senior director in technology who just changed jobs. I asked my friends, who are also senior leaders, to give me a reference. Guess what? I past with flying colours.

    I often gets asked to provide references for friends and family. Guess what? They all pass as well. I guarantee I’d be able to pass any of your reference checks for my friends without blinking.

    If you want to vet a candidate, do that at the interview stage and then during their probationary period. It’s really not that hard.

  6. Ok, so, wrong. You’re not trying to rescind an offer with a reference check. You’re trying to get the scoop on who they really are; what they hid in interviewing. A Hogan suite could likely get you close but minus the color commentary. It’s incredibly easy to get someone’s best friend or worst enemy to open up about them with the right conversation techniques.

    And what’s with all the f*ckiing swearing that HR writers feel the need to use? Seen this from another popular face in the recruiting space as well. Not impressive, not tough, not provocative, not needed.

  7. Back in my agency days, I LOVED calling references! Why? LEADS!!! Good people( your top candidate) know good people( future candidates at best, strong network at worst).

    Call me a happy( funnel-filling) IDIOT!

  8. I have heard conflicting ideas that rescinding an offer based off of verbal refences could potentially open a company up to a discrimination claim. That, and the fact that our company (along with others I know of) have set policies which state the only information anyone is able to receive from us is dates of service and job title. And that only happens if we have signed release of information forms from the candidate. Does anyone else have more info on the potential legal ramifications of reference running?

    Personally, I agree “traditional” references are stupid and a waste for time. Worth exploring these tech based ones, though!

  9. Hmm. If you have a service check references I agree it is pretty useless. If you do it yourself and you ask the right kind of questions it can be very helpful. I am not sure that it has eliminated all that many candidates but it certainly gives insight from a developmental and cultural perspective. One great question to ask a supervisor – “Every year you are asked to do a performance review and give the employee an area or areas to improve in. Every GOOD manager provides this information to the employee so they can continue to develop. What did you put on Sam’s review last year?” No one wants to be a bad manager so I get an answer every time. It might just provide an idea of what the new employee may need some development on but it has also caused us to consider someone else if the area of improvement is key to the role we are trying to fill.
    I agree I wouldn’t invest the time it takes to personally check references for every type of position but background checks are key – it is unbelievable how many people lie about their education.

  10. Some weird assumptions here. I’ve declined to offer jobs plenty of time based on concerning references. I’d guess anyone who does a thorough reference check pre hire has used that info that way.

    • Adam,

      How many times in the past 100 hires, specifically?

      I’m only half-joking! Your response is what I hear typically from TA leaders. “No! It works just fine!” But, when you actually crunch the data, they are basically worthless, for what we put into them.

      Thanks for the comment – we all want the same thing, great hires!


      • I’m not TA, I run an org. What data, specifically? This doesn’t match up with my lived experience at all. If people aren’t finding references useful my guess is they’re not actually doing thorough, competent checks. If you treat references like a rubber-stamp (which is what your post implies, if you’re doing them post offer, which forgive me is craziness) of course they’re not useful. If you use them to gather real intel on folks before you decide who to hire they’re supremely useful.

        • Adam,

          Data = how many people have you not hired because of the reference check? What is that percentage. If it’s less than 5-10%, it’s a waste of resources. I can flip a coin, and make you a better selection.


  11. I think it depends on the references you accept to check. If the candidate doesn’t offer a manager’s contact why bother with his colleagues and friends? And yes, some ideas of some apps would help. Please give us some details. Thanks

  12. How about a few examples of the technology space you speak about. Not all of us are in the latest and greatest tech space.

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