Reference Checks Are Worthless

Andy Porter Andy Porter, Hiring Managers, References

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!