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  • Writer's pictureIrene Iliopoulos

Is it time to drop the reference checks?

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

Recruitment is in a time of change – companies are innovating and engaging, and trying to win the “fight” for talent. And while there is now a ton of wooing going down, candidates are still (if not more so) forced to jump through hoops. Some good hoops – technical testing/interviewing, a day in the life of, interviews and meeting with numerous people in the team/organization, etc…, while others remain arbitrary and just plain useless – if you could be any tree in the world, what color would your roots be?

Now on to the reference check – the one area that professionals in the industry cannot seem to agree on. Many organisations swear by it, love it, need it like a glass of water in the desert – and others simply don’t. Personal opinions aside, can one really argue that the reference check is still relevant?


To break it down for those who are unaware, this is what happens in a reference check: 1- Once the interview process is wrapping up and the hiring manager is pretty certain they want you, they will tell the recruiter to do a reference check 2- Recruiter asks the candidate to scramble to get the names, numbers, and emails of 2 (sometimes more) previous supervisors 3- Candidate (often) spends a lot of time getting the info & getting in contact with previous managers because, you guessed it, MOST MANAGERS DON’T EVEN LIKE GIVING REFERENCES. Also, considering it’s often a few years back that they worked with this employee (remember, a job seeker secretly seeking employment isn’t going to give his current employer as reference), it can take some time. 4- Hiring manager/recruiter calls and emails the list of references, HOPES the reference answers/gets back to them, and asks them a slew of daunting questions on performance, likeability, punctuality, responsibilities, etc…

The top 3 types of results I’ve encountered when conducting a reference check: 1- Hiring manager often answers vaguely because he/she either does not recall specifics of the individual’s work, but knows it can’t be negative after looking through employee records. 2- Hiring manager may offer a glowing reference because the employee was either incredibly fantastic, or very well liked by the manager, or still keeps in contact on a social/professional level with the hiring manager and therefore the manager remembers well (or a mix of both) 3- Hiring manager isn’t even the one answering the reference check, and instead passes it off to the HR department who basically responds with timelines of employment, job description and title, and if there were or weren’t any issues/red flags during the employees time

Why do I believe employment reference checks are overrated, and quite frankly, useless at this point? Well, it’s clear that a job-seeker will only ask a previous manager whom he/she knows will give a good reference. The employee who never showed up to work on time, constantly had performance issues, didn’t get along with other employees, and/or generally seemed disinterested in his/her work, will likely NOT ask their manager to provide feedback on their performance. If an employer requires my references, you better believe I will only give the names and numbers of people I KNOW will make me look good. Also, let’s not forget, a person’s past performance isn’t always indicative of their future success. Aren’t interviews about trying to find the best person for the job? Why are we still relying on the opinions of externals? What do we benefit by asking a former supervisor a bunch of arbitrary “would you re-hire this employee in the future?” type questions?


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