The Truth About Reference Checks

When I started in Talent Acquisition and HR, I was sold on the idea that checking references was the key to snagging top-notch hires. The whole “past performance predicts future performance” spiel is practically carved in stone tablets right?

But around 100 reference checks into my HR career, I stopped believing it. Either I was a hiring genius (mostly true), or the reference check thing was a massive hoax.

Reference checks are the perfect scam. And not just any scam, but a scam that everyone is in on. 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.

Let’s face it: When was the last time a company passed on a hire based on a reference check? Most draw a blank; we hire based on references every single time. Is that a solid system? If you’re struggling for an answer or it’s always ‘never,’ maybe it’s time to rethink the whole reference check circus.

  1. Get Your Own References: Ditch the usual references candidates throw at you. In interviews, get the names of their old bosses. Give them a call – you might get some real talk even if official references are a no-go.
  2. Go Automated: Use fancy tech for reference checks that doesn’t make references feel forced into singing praises. It spills the beans on a candidate’s work style without giving away the game.
  3. Fact-Check with Tech: Google, Facebook, LinkedIn – they’re not just for stalking. Use them to fact-check a candidate’s story. With over half of people stretching the truth on their resumes, tech is your truth serum.

Smart HR folks should question a system that gives the green light to almost everyone. Catching less than 0.1% of fakers isn’t a sign of quality; it’s just lazy.

Break the mold, try new things, and maybe your company will see you as the one who can pull off walking on water.

What are your tips for checking references?

2 thoughts on “The Truth About Reference Checks

  1. “Reference checks” means different things to different people.

    Should you always try to verify the official details of someone’s previous employment through HR? Yes. 100% of the time.

    Applicants often lie about their dates of employment and title. They also fabricate previous employment out of whole cloth–the employer has never even heard of them.

    Charter Spectrum was hit with a $1.147 billion judgment in 2022 for failing to try to verify the previous employment of an employee who murdered one of their residential clients.

    Not even trying to verify the applicant’s employment claims looks really bad to a jury. And, some percentage of the time, you’re actually going to catch candidates in outright lies. (Gospel According to Coffey: If they lie to you coming in the door, it is unreasonable to expect their behavior to change after you hire them.)

    If by “reference checks” one means talking to former supervisors or colleagues about the individual’s behavior and performance, the value is somewhat less demonstrable–especially when the reference is someone provided by the applicant.

    In that case, it is simply an intelligence test: Is this person smart enough to list three people who will say nice things about them?

    While every now and then we talk to a reference who replies “He listed me?!” and then proceeds to through the applicant under the bus, such references rarely generate useful information–though the effort may help mitigate future liability if something goes horribly wrong over the course of employment.

    As you said, Tim, identifying and contacting former supervisors or colleagues who haven’t been prepped by the applicant can be more useful. And even then, they rarely provide negative information. However, if you can get a former supervisor to talk to you, asking them about specific claims that the candidate made during the interview (dollars saved due to an initiative she spearheaded, unique successes he had in that role, why he left the company, etc.) can be useful in corroborating the claims.

    Additionally, we always ask about honesty/integrity, diligence and work ethic, threatening or coercive behavior, and “anything else an employer considering this person for a sensitive position should be aware.” At the very least, those questions help mitigate potential liability and, on occasion, actually reinforce or call into question the hiring decision.

  2. My tip for checking references is to eliminate them all together. I’ve been fortunate that two of three of my corporate employers eliminated their reference checks while I was with them.

    #1 I still am not a big fan of unless you have a mutual connection to that candidate. The problem with checking previous bosses is that past bosses may have their own baggage – disgruntled that the employee left, difficult personality, ect.

    #2 The one corporate employer that didn’t eliminate references went this route; expensive, but solid way to do it.

    #3 This is my go-to. Especially matching up resume dates with LinkedIn dates. I’ve seen some pretty big discrepancies/fabrications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.