Reference Checks Are Worthless

I don’t understand… with the whole HR world moving to a more data-driven, analytical, quantitative, measure-anything-that-moves-mindset, how is it that we still rely on the ol’ reference check before we hire someone? They’re almost completely unreliable and filled with bias—your own biases (because, let’s face it, at this point in the process you just want to fill the job and you’re only hearing the good things). And that’s not all—you also get a complete set of biases from the person giving you the reference! In my opinion, the absolute only thing they may be good for is giving you is a tidbit or two on what it’s like to work with the person… but that’s it.

But if you must continue doing references, I thought I’d give you a handy little guide on how to interpret the type of reference you’re getting:

  • The name, rank, and serial number. All you HR folks know exactly what I’m talking about—because you probably recommend this approach to your managers! This is the reference that tells you absolutely nothing that you couldn’t have figured out yourself on LinkedIn. If you find yourself getting one of these “I can only confirm hire dates” shticks, you can at least have some fun with them by trying to get them to say something off script. “So, are you saying you wouldn’t hire this person again? What, you can’t answer that? How about you knock twice for yes and do nothing for no.” Of course I’ve never done such a thing…
  • It’s all about me. Somehow, even though you called to find out if you should hire Frank, you don’t actually ever talk about Frank. Because the person you got on the phone is just so happy to talk to anyone about what they’ve done. “Tell me about Frank’s biggest accomplishment” leads to 10 minutes about how much this reference giver has done for their company or how Frank wouldn’t have had any success if it weren’t for him. And they really, really want you to know they’ve had opportunities… boy have they had opportunities to take other jobs but they’ve turned them all away. Sure. Sure you have.
  • The backdoor. Ugh. The backdoor reference—the sneakiest, least reliable of all possible references. This approach is used primarily when you really don’t want to hire the person but you can’t come up with a good rationale for why not. So you invoke the “backdoor” reference. This mysterious person that you used to work with years ago who just happens to have the real dirt on your candidate. Once the backdoor card has been used, it’s almost impossible to convince the hiring manager to change their mind. And this is the worst from a recruiter’s point of view… you get all the way to the end, don’t hire the person and then have to give them some BS reason why you’re not hiring them.

So there. I just gave you a whole bunch of reasons why references suck and no good ideas on what to replace it with (people love when bloggers do this by the way)…

I’m sure you all have had some interesting references, too—I’d love to hear your stories!

FOT Background Check

Andy Porter
Andy Porter is Chief People Officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA which means he works with some wicked smaaht people. Some days, he indeed does wear short shorts around the office(call it a morale booster) but it really just makes people uncomfortable. Other days, he spits some mad game on cheese. No really – he’s somewhat of a cheese aficionado. But more importantly? At Broad he gets to his small part to help change the world of healthcare.


  1. Completely agree…
    Not only are they useless, but if you aren’t convinced after the hours of interviews you’ve put the candidate through that they are trustworthy & a good match, how can you immediately and implicitly trust a stranger giving an opinion on said candidate? Added to that fact is that their opinion was derived in a completely different environment and situation to your own. Then when things go awry, the first response is: Well, we checked references!
    Have you come across this one often? I believe this happens more internally to organizations than externally: the “talent hider” or “problem passer”. The reference that guards their best but advocates for their worst to be considered elsewhere. Using this method they believe they will retain their best people while moving underperformers along. Also turns out to be a disaster, but fun to watch anyway.
    Great read! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Nick Karoutsos says:

    Like anything in recruiting, reference checks are beneficial when done correctly. A reference check shouldn’t be used to “get a feel” of a candidate or “a different view point”, but rather used to verify facts from interviews. Additionally, you shouldn’t be requesting references from a candidate – you should be asking who their manager was for the relevant experiences during their interviews. Then you verify that fact via that companies HR department and finally follow up with a list of accomplishments and risks you would like verified. (E.g. “What was their sales for FY15?”). You then take what the manager says and compare against their resume and interview answers. You’d be surprised how often you find someone who has significantly overinflated their accomplishments in this way.

    • I agree that sales numbers could be a hard and fast metric possibly verifiable, but aren’t you putting undue amounts of faith in the word of someone who may not know apples from oranges? There are plenty of resume “fluffers” out there… but I think there are an equal number of bad managers… if not more, especially given the fact that most people leaders are promoted due to their functional expertise, not trained how to lead, and often struggle at learning a brand new set of skills on the fly.
      Just a thought…

  3. Quick point:
    Reference checks have been tremendous for me throughout my career, in both external headhunting and internal recruiting, but used a bit differently than described above.
    Reference checks can be the best “lead generator” imaginable. I’ve almost always ended the call (assuming we thought they were high quality) with asking about them, what drives them, what aren’t they getting today that they’d like to see in their next role, and asking permission to keep them in mind/reach back out. My team’s have learned and had great success utilizing this tactic as well.
    The fact that a client, internal or external values an output of my “longer term field fertilization” is great, and likely why I have not done much to avoid doing references as a practice.

  4. Jaye Tyler says:

    Our company had very good success using a reasonably-priced online tool called Skill Survey. Candidates provide at least 5 co-worker, manager, or colleague/customer references (2 must be supervisor/manager) through the site, then the survey is sent from Skill Survey to the references. Recipients complete a short multiple choice survey (specific to the role being filled) and answers are amalgamated, protecting the individuals providing the reference. This provides an opportunity for the reference to share pertinent information.

    As a part of the process, we moved the Skill Survey requests closer to the start of the process (prior to our first in-person interview), which saved us time & money when the results showed a candidate wasn’t as strong as we’d hoped.

    • Renee says:

      Just curious – is it kosher to exclude candidates from an interview based on the reference check?

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