Checking References – Valuable Selection Tool or a Waste of Time?

Conduct a quick internet search about checking references for employment candidates. What did you find? Articles about how to ask the right questions and discussions of how costly hiring the wrong person can be, most likely. But take one more step back. Why do we check references?

In my experience a lot of companies check references because that’s what they have seen others do. It’s expected and not questioned. Some will tell you that they’re trying to better understand the candidate and make sure they’re making the right hiring decision. The second answer is a better one, but I still question it.

There are basically two types of data that you collect in the employee selection process: subjective and objective. Examples of potentially subjective sources of information include answers to open ended questions, information collected that is open to interpretation, and the opinions of others. Examples of more objective sources of information include behavioral interview questions and certain pre-employment assessments such as skill tests and demonstrations.

The trouble with references is that it’s self-report data. In other words, it’s subjective because it’s up to the candidate to tell you who to call. That allows for a lot of leeway and a lot of selectivity when it comes to who is listed. Let me take a minute to clarify here that I’m not talking about employment verifications, which is very different. I’m talking about the references that you’re going to call that may or may not be past employment relationships.

I have called thousands of references to obtain information on prospective employees. I have asked all the right questions based on the endless articles out there about how to get the right information from these individuals. I have honed my skills and gotten very efficient and effective at the task. And from all that experience, I don’t recommend bothering with references.

Most applications collect three references from each candidate. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes to call all references, leave messages, take the return phone calls (when they even bother to call back), document that typically glowing responses, and compile the information for the final hiring decision. Not a ton of time, but if you’re busy being the entire HR department or if it’s one of your many duties, it’s still valuable time. And time is money. I have only uncovered negative information about a candidate in less than 1% of the calls I’ve made. I can count on one hand the number of times a “reference” has said that they didn’t really work with the person, the candidate wasn’t a strong employee, or something similar – out of a LOT of calls. The rest of the time, it’s the overly positive “you should hire this person” tone and very predictable answers to the standard questions.

I must be doing something wrong, you say. I’m wasting time on the wrong questions or I’m not establishing rapport with the reference. No. Go back to who the reference is. If I’m going to hinge my employment opportunity on three people, I’d be a fool not to list the three people who are going to say the nicest things about me and my work habits. The information you have access to via references is entirely controlled by the candidate. At best, you have three people who can vouch for that person being a good employee. At worst, you have people willing to lie for the candidate and claim to be a former supervisor or coworker just to help a friend. I’d say about 10% of the time I’ve been about to identify this latter group – because I do a separate (and more valuable) employment verification and then learn that the reference check information doesn’t line up with the employment verification. Well even then, what good did the references check do? I gathered everything I needed from the employment verification.

Maybe here and there I have found the references beneficial – confirming a suspicion of something not being quite right with reported work history or other damaging information. But very rarely is that where I get the right information to determine whether the individual in question is a good hire. In the history of working for companies who require references checks I’ve spent thousands of hours gathering useless information. My experience tells me that in the long list of ways to select candidates, calling a list of people provided to you by the candidate is not the most effective.

Every part of your employee selection program should have a clear, meaningful, and justifiable reason why you include it. Each application item, each interview question, each additional hurdle such as background checks, references, and pre-employment testing. And I don’t mean a reason like, “I want to find that best person for the job”. That’s just fluff. A reason like, “I ask this question about teamwork because this position works on a team of 7 other people and I need to know that the candidate will be successful in that environment.” Or, “I verify previous employment by contacting HR department to validate the accuracy of the candidates’ application data and see career progression”. (A note on that – if you’re verifying employment with just anyone from the company, you may not be getting the truth…). So why do you check references? What information do you collect and from whom? What role does it play in the selection process? How often does the effort you expend in collecting that data provide you with useful information?

I’m not necessarily saying don’t check references. There is probably a place for it and I know there are people out there that are advocates of the practice. But in most of my consulting career, I can honestly say that no employer has ever given me a good answer to why they do it or how it helps make employment decisions. I most often here, “I’m supposed to, right?”. And to me, that’s not a good enough reason to bother with it.

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