Reference Checks: WHY?!

Can we talk about something controversial for a minute?  An opinion that is not accepted among those who hire.   It is the one thing that completely drives recruiters crazy about the hiring process. Are you ready?  REFERENCE CHECKS. 

Is this a generational thing?  An old school step in a hiring process when candidates and skills were plentiful?  A time when it may have been difficult to narrow down the candidate pool?  Is it requested because no one can decide without someone else telling them that everything will be ok? Is it because you (hiring manager) were burned once by a hire and you feel like three random people, that you have never met, will make everything better?   

I mean why not do reference checks on the references to make sure they are to be trusted?! 

You have heard this several times over the last few years – the hiring market and talent is extremely tight.  10 years ago, it was easy to find 5 candidates for every job.  Today you are lucky if you find one that fits the description, interviews well and gains unanimous consent to hire. 

So, when recruiters find that one perfect person why are we making it more difficult? We have vetted their background, they interview splendidly with the hiring team, and we are ready to make an offer – WHY are you requesting references? 

Here are the standard questions on a reference check form – be ready to have your mind blown (/sarcasm)

What was your working relationship with this candidate? 

Can you briefly describe his/her responsibilities in that role? 

How would you describe his/her performance? 

Why did this candidate leave the organization? 

What are their strengths/weaknesses? 

How well did they work with colleagues/teams/leadership? 

Can they handle stress? 

Would you hire them again? 

There are some of you reading this right now that are saying – but Dina, these are outstanding questions and I can glean so much information from what previous leaders/employees think of this candidate.  Dina, I can’t take the chance! 

Here is the catch.  If you had to give (3) professional references to an employer – who would you give?  Your favorite coworker. The best boss you have ever had.  The client who loves you.  OR the boss that fired you. The coworker you fight with. The client you can’t stand working with.  Which one?   


Sorry for yelling.   

I have tried to have this conversation with every hiring manager I have ever worked with.  In this hiring market is it worth requesting references for the final candidate or to decide between two candidates – NO!  You are slowing down the hiring process. A process that is already insanely fast because you are not the only employer selling to these candidates.    

I know we like to think we are the best thing since sliced bread (where did that saying even come from) but we are not.  You are the same as everyone else.  Unless you are Apple, then you are different.  You can be picky if you are Apple.  YOU ARE NOT APPLE! 

Are you willing to lose this candidate to another employer for the time it takes to gain a reference check? 

That is what you need to ask yourself.   

I have another bone to pick with you reference seekers.  The pre-unapproved reference seeker. 

In my time as a corporate recruiter, the biggest ethical battle I had was submitting candidates to a hiring manager or team and then finding out that the team/manager did their own confidential reference check.  Reaching out to their network to get the “inside scoop” on the candidate.  Its HIGHLY UNETHICAL and almost stalkerish to snoop on a candidate that hasn’t approved for you to do so.  The job seeking process is confidential.  You have no right to make unsolicited calls on behalf of a candidate you don’t even know. 

You pre-reference seekers will rule out candidates, before even speaking to them, because someone told you something negative. It never seems to matter if that feedback comes from someone who worked with the candidate 5+ years ago.  You, the hiring manager, can’t get past it.  So, the process stops.   

Ask yourself, have you grown in the last 5+ years in your technical and interpersonal skills, have you gained leadership ability, have you developed employees, and have you matured?  Have you gotten married, maybe had kids, and grown as a person?   

So why are we judging candidates that harshly?  Have you ever stopped to wonder if the person you are reaching out to – to get the inside scoop – was that coworker that they just didn’t get along with?  Or the boss that the candidate would rank as their worst boss ever?   You are judging a candidate completely subjectively.  Never giving them the chance to sell themselves, their skills and their fit for your company.   

I find all reference checks to be subjective.  If you are pre-screening, including leadership & peers in the interview process and communicating with the candidate throughout the process – you will know that candidate.  You will understand technical and cultural fit.    

Hiring a candidate is like dating. 

You must trust the process.  You must trust your instincts and fully vet your candidate before getting too serious.  If we referenced checked everyone we dated – no one would ever get married! Everyone has an ex…. 

Requesting references tells me that you, as a leader, have an inability to decide without someone telling you what to do.   You do not feel confident enough in your ability to judge technical and interpersonal skills in a hiring process. That is on you. Trust yourself and trust your team.

And one last thought.  Candidates are PEOPLE.  You are hiring PEOPLE.  You could have the best candidate, with the greatest references, and think you have made the greatest hiring decision ever.  And 6-months into the job, that candidate quits because the company or the leader is not what they are happy with.  You can’t control that from a reference check.  You must take chances on people.   

As leaders, you must create an environment that people want to work for.    

That is on you – not the candidate.  

Stop slowing the process down and trust your instincts.   

Talk to candidates. 

Trust the process and leave some of this up to fate.