Exploring The Questionable Value Of References

Exploring The Questionable Value Of References

Exploring The Questionable Value Of References


I don’t mean to be contrarian, (or maybe I do) but does asking for references still add value to the hiring process?

It’s been said, that a good person doesn’t need references and it won’t help a bad one! Kidding aside, I understand the importance of verifying a candidate’s previous employment experience. I get it: It’s wise to vouch for a candidate’s on-the-job performance and character through a third party.

But really, for references, wouldn’t it be more effective to consult the public resources that are readily available to hiring managers, such as LinkedIn profiles with client and colleague recommendations, social media and community interactions, comments, or the candidate’s own website or published online content? Most candidates have a digital footprint that can tell you a lot about them—you just have to do the research. The absence of an online presence and social interactions can be instructive to the hiring process too.

As I said in a recent post, people get promoted based on their likability, not strictly because of their skill-set and competence. Some of the smartest people out there never get promoted because they lack social intuitiveness. As a hiring manager, you’re trying to build a collaborative team, right?

Too often we resort to default mode as we’re heading down the home stretch of a successful interview process: “When can you start, and how much notice do you need to give your employer?” “When can we set you up for physical or drug screen?” And, of course: “Can you provide us with a list of professional references?”

Seriously, how many times in your career has a potential new hire provided you with references that didn’t work out? Have you received a bad reference? Why would a candidate provide one? I can say in all honesty that it’s happened to me only once in 18 years.

And will the references, even the good ones, tell you something you don’t already know about the candidate? Sure, you could learn something about the candidate’s work ethic or a leadership skill they didn’t tell you about. But really, how often does that actually happen? Just playing the devil’s advocate here, because we tend to do these things on autopilot without strategic thought, don’t we?

What’s more, many states regulate what a former employer can say about a former employee, and it’s my understanding that employers in some states can only provide information with the employee’s consent. Employers can get caught up in a defamation suit by over-sharing about a former employee, so their risk-aversion is understandable.

Liz Carey recommends a balanced approach:

“Make sure the references are really who your candidate says they are by looking them up on LinkedIn and calling them on the company’s land-line. Ask open-ended questions about their work processes, attitude, key strengths, and areas for improvement, and whether they would have the candidate work with them again. Pay attention to what the reference doesn’t say about the candidate, as well.” (1)

Good advice, but I would say gut instincts have a strong role to play as well—much more than references—as your proven experience and intuitive judgment inform and ultimately hold sway in determining a candidate’s fitness for a role.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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1. Carey, Liz. How Important Are Reference Checks. Jan. 27, 2016 (Accessed May 24, 2017): http://npaworldwide.com/blog/2016/01/27/how-important-are-reference-checks/#.WSWII1KZO9Y

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Victoria is an accomplished direct and digital marketer with more than 20 years of industry experience. The Founder and President of Victoria James Executive Search, Inc. direct and digital marketing search firm, she has had a successful and accomplished career, holding senior level sales and marketing management positions in companies such as Citicorp Diner’s Club, Donnelley Marketing. Victoria understands the need for premium talent in the Direct and Digital Marketing industries, is an active member of the Direct Marketing Association, NEMOA and other associations, and holds an Executive MBA from Bernard M. Baruch College. Contact Victoria today to learn how her team of recruitment experts can accelerate your efforts and help you quickly accomplish your goals.

1 Comment

  1. Cynthia 6 years ago

    On the one hand I received a glowing reference for an organization and I still work there ten years later. This is significant because I was switching from a for-profit advertising career to nonprofit community service work and had no experience except in my own circle of neighbors and friends. Granted, the person who supplied the reference was well-respected in the area.
    On the other hand, I asked for a reference in hiring for a part-time contracted position at my church. The person was highly recommended and many skills were listed. That ended up being a totally wrong and they lasted less than a year.
    So two things: One always ask the person from whom you wish to receive a reference and make sure they ” like” you. And two, a good reference is like icing on a cake, but you had better be able to perform the job.

    Thank you.

    Cynthia Bradley
    Philadelphia, PA

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