I read an article on LinkedIn recently by a person questioning the use of reference checks. In his overview, he was of the opinion that since no one in today’s world would give out references that weren’t ready to say great things about him/her, this part of the hiring process was outdated and unnecessary.
As I reflected on his thoughts, I realized that from an employer’s perspective, this could very well hold true. For many organizations, this has the potential to be very much a “rubber stamp” finish to the overall hiring process. I can share observations about applicants actually providing “ghost references” or listing names without getting permission from those references. This is done with the hope/anticipation that the employer won’t actually check those references — they’re just making sure the applicant is willing to provide them.
Outside of those extreme examples, however, what other factors can make reference checks less valuable? The common thread is personal. What I mean by this is that the primary reasons this part of the hiring process can become more of a formality are personal:
- If a former co-worker or direct report asks you to serve as a reference for him/her, you immediately feel obligated to do so. Whether you really feel you can give them a good reference is immaterial at that point. It comes down to our basic urge to help those who ask us for it.
- When the potential employer reaches out to you as a reference for that former co-worker or direct report, you may feel torn. If your friend was a mediocre performer or had some issues that could affect his/her performance with this new employer, your conscience tells you to share that. At the same time, there’s an innate fear that doing so will be brought back to your friend’s attention by the potential employer. Whether that’s a real concern or not, most people aren’t willing to take that chance.
So, in many cases we end up with a very brief conversation that does little other than confirm you worked with this person and determine whether he/she is eligible for rehire with the prior organization. When viewed in this fashion, I can see why people like the LinkedIn article author may see little point to checking references.
Web-Based Reference Checking
However, there is a trend toward automating the reference checking part of the hiring process — much like applicant tracking, new hire onboarding, background checking, etc. One major reason this trend is gaining in popularity (beyond the obvious advantage of efficiency) is ultimately due to one key item — anonymity.
If you receive an email indicating that your friend has listed you as a reference for a position and needs your help, you’ll likely respond to that request. At this point, there’s no difference than what I described above. However, the game changes from here forward.
Now, instead of getting a phone call from the potential employer, you click a link and rank your friend on skills/competencies/traits that are selected by his/her potential employer. Just as importantly, it’s made clear to you that neither your friend, nor the potential employer, will see your individual responses. Much different scenario. Now, the following occur:
- You’re more honest with your appraisal of your friend. It’s easier to do this, as you know your feedback won’t be shared with him/her or anyone else.
- You’re more willing to offer ad hoc feedback. Beyond simply rating your friend on the selected items, you have the ability to share other information that may be helpful to the potential employer.
No one can provide the type of objective feedback that prior co-workers or supervisors can. They’ve seen a potential hire in action and can speak to that person’s strengths and weaknesses with good authority. It’s not a matter of reference checking being outdated. It’s simply a matter of the traditional reference checking process being outdated.