Has reference checking lost its value?

Table of Contents

Ever heard of reference checking when you applied for jobs? Unless you’re a fresh graduate, I bet the question of the HR / recruiter asking you for references is a common practice.

Reference Checking

I have recently been questioning my life choices, in particular my career – whether to continue pursuing a life of a Malaysian corporate tax consultant or to pursue other opportunities. I decided to put my head out and see what opportunities came my way, and was soon faced with the question of references.

What was interesting was this. The recruiter wanted to contact my references on a weekend. I have no issue with them wanting to conduct a more thorough background check on me, but contacting my references on a weekend? Can’t that really wait till the work week starts?

That got me thinking about the point of asking for references.

Read also: Presenteeism – Why Should You Care?

Is reference checking still effective today? Does it still add value?

I get it. The initial concept of this may be a needful one. Getting former managers and colleagues to open up about a candidate can uncover valuable information and give you an idea about the candidate. If done right, a thorough reference check will uncover any misrepresentations and give you a very accurate portrait of the candidate. However, done poorly, they’re pretty much useless.

As I gather more from my friends working in HR / recruitment, this process is often carried out too late. It has become much more of a “ticking the box” exercise, rather than for its intended purpose (do comment if you’re a recruiter and this is not the case – I’d love to hear from you!). More often than none, it is a monotonous exercise that offers little value in its execution.

Statistical bias?

Think about it, is the candidate going to put references that would give a negative review on themselves? No! The candidate is surely going to put the best people forward for their references. That is already a form of a statistical bias. Hence, would it still be as value-adding as its original intention?

One must also take into account that a candidate’s poor performance in his previous employer, does not necessary mean an automatic failure in yours. It is known that employees perform at their best when their values and priorities are aligned with their employer. So, a candidate might not have performed as expected because the environment just wasn’t a right fit for them.

Unnecessary legal action?

There’s also the risk of the reference not willing to open up to avoid legal action being taken by the candidate if they feel an act of defamation has occurred.

What I felt from my point of view

A few immediate questions popped into my head.

1. Why is the outsourced recruiter instead of the hiring manager conducting the reference checking?

Isn’t it more meaningful if the hiring manager is the one who holding these reference checking conversations? I get that the hiring manager might be busy with their day-to-day responsibilities. But if you require these checks to be conducted, shouldn’t you do it yourself? Because ultimately, the candidate is going to be working at your company.

Outsourced recruiters want to finalise the hire as soon as possible, and the last thing they want to do is uncover a problem at the end of the process after the company has made a selection. They want to close the sale. They’re conflicted.

2. Is reference checking still effective?

I personally feel it is not so. This procedure, in my opinion is open for abuse. Couldn’t I just get people I know who’d say good things about me, or even just tell them what to say? (FYI – I did neither, I just checked with my references whether they were okay to talk to the recruiter over the weekend and gave the recruiter three references – my current reporting manager, and 2 of my ex-reporting managers).

Perhaps a disruption is needed to replace this traditional way of accessing a person’s achievements or abilities.

What I felt could have been the better way?

Interview better. Assess better. Probe better.

1. If you really need to conduct a background check on your candidate, do it the professional way.

I’m not disputing that employment verification is important. Just hire a professional background check vendor to conduct a background check on your candidate rather than to do it based on reference checking. There are companies that provide such services. It gives you an unbiased background check.

Furthermore, it saves you as the hiring manager and your candidate’s time. Getting information from the references provided by the candidate is just not an effective method to get that background check done.

2. If you want to understand the candidate better, interview and interview again if you have to.

I believe in the power of the interview. There is nothing like sizing up the candidate through an interview, or two if necessary. You can gauge a person by the words that he says or writes. Words contain the things related to the skills desired; They also help you size up a person’s personality. Words open little windows into a person’s character. In all forms, verbal, signed or written, they form the basis of our very existence because it is the main instrument of communication.

3. Put the candidate through a series of tests!

There are IQ and EQ tests. You can even throw in personality tests as well. Run it through the candidate and they will give you a picture that will tell you quite a lot. It is probably one of the better ways to form an idea before you talk to the candidate. This is the kind of reference checking that involves the candidate in a more direct way. This will need some investment in getting the tools and also getting your HR department trained to handle it.

4. Reference check the candidate through him/herself.

There is nothing like seeing the candidate at work than this. Get the candidate to write a personal statement, provide a written solution or report. Get an opinion about an issue. It can be within the job scope or a opinion piece. This is quick reference checking via the candidate him/herself. You get an immediate insight into the inner workings and writing skills. You can even request for a 2-minute video if you want to see the candidate in action (I remember a few years ago I was requested to provide a short video about my opinion on what better lifestyle changes could IoT bring). There are added values in this approach too.

Read also: What Working from Home has Taught Me

At the end of the day

If you’re not invested in doing reference checks the right way, it’s time to just ditch them altogether. I feel that it has lost their value and there’s so much risks (especially those potentially hefty litigation risks). There’ll always be an endless risk on making the single-most important decision in your business – who to invite to be part of it. But then again, this is where the head hunters come into play too, perhaps still.

Do you think that reference checks are still relevant today? If yes, in what ways do you find to be the most effective way when conducting reference checks for your potential employees?

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