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The Demise of Reference Checks

By November 27, 20146 Comments

My week has been filled with reference checks.  Giving references.  Taking references.  Four references for one candidate and still no offer.  One reference  for a candidate with an immediate offer.  Nominated referees not returning messages.  Un-nominated referees begrudgingly giving references.  Extra long references peppered with drilling-down questions thrown up by psychometric assessments.  Quick and easy nudge-nudge-wink-wink “off the record” references.

One of two things is happening here.  We’re either:

a)  taking our pre-employment screening far more seriously than other countries and benefiting from a more well-informed decision-making process


b)  failing to trust our instincts as recruiters and indulging clients’ inability to make their mind up

We take a lot of UK references due to the types of candidates we typically place, and it’s now more often than not that the referees are refusing to give verbal references, instead passing us onto HR for the dreaded and pointless “confirmation of work dates” reference.

The American who sits beside me tells me that most employers in the US don’t even bother taking formal references any more.  Referees are so wrapped up in fear of litigation that they’re never likely to give an honest appraisal anymore, so most employers have stopped bothering to ask.

This mindset has even manifested itself into a lawsuit against LinkedIn, with a bunch of jobseekers seeking to blame LinkedIn’s new “Reference Search” feature for their inability to secure gainful employment.

I think references are instructive and, if regarded in the proper way, useful tools to learn how best to manage and motivate your new employee.  I struggle with the concept that a hiring decision should be based wholly upon them, though.  Especially when the process of chasing referees can delay and sometimes jeopardise the recruitment process.  I guess we’re fortunate to live in a part of the world where people are still willing to be open and transparent and give useful feedback on candidates in verbal reference checks.

But, as we typically follow the business trends of larger Western economies a few years behind, I imagine the days of the formal verbal reference check are numbered.  Make hay while the sun shines, but get better at learning to trust your instincts.  The days where you can ask others to make your mind up for you won’t be around for too much longer.

Jonathan Rice

MD at New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice Consulting and co-founder of on-demand recruiter offering Joyn. Recruitment agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Paul says:

    There’s an interesting point-of-view. I can’t see many of our risk-averse clients taking this idea on board.

  • Kevin Chappell says:

    Jonathan, I’ve always thought ref checks are a crock of the proverbial. Instinct and intuition should prevail and that’s what we’re there for. I have one client who says that he never bothers with ref checks, but because his HO in Oz requires that 2 are done, then I have to do them. But he makes the offer prior to them being done. In his many years, he’s never been wrong. And likewise. I can recall a couple of instances where my radar clanged away, but the ref checks said differently. Should have trusted instinct. Found out later she was given a false ref check on the basis of a legal agreement that she would not pursue a sexual harassment case with the husband of her MD! Another was from someone I knew. Both client and I had slight misgivings, but she had some unique skills the client wanted – and it was a contract. After 3 months, she was “disposed of” and after confronting the referee and telling him what happended, he said “Yeah, I nearly fired her on numerous occasions. She was a space cadet and caused chaos. But you can’t dob someone in, can you?” I’m sure we’ve all got stories like this. To me it’s more about keeping tabs on reputation, what’s happening in the market, and reading between the lines on the plethora of information available on individuals in the market. And trusting your instincts.

  • Crispin says:

    Was surprised how seriously references are taken when I moved to NZ. Although useful they are so subjective. I think a robust interview process and probation period is a much more useful way of assessing people’s capability.

  • David says:

    I agree that the value of the reference check is changing.

    One of the challenges and frustrations of larger international companies (particularly from the USA) not providing references is that many conservative hiring managers automatically jump to the conclusion that a previous manager refusing to provide a reference indicates that there must be something to hide…..which is often not the case and simply a previous manager toeing the company line.

  • Paul Jacobs says:

    I see value in a good robust probing reference check. I’ve been called up by some recruiters when I’ve been a referee and the reference checking has been very low quality – I felt as though the recruiter is trying to ascertain all the positive stuff only to recommend and/or fast track their candidate. Reference checking provides heaps of value when it tests any “gut feel”, potential concerns or gaps from psych assessments, interview etc and when you relate it back to the role and skills and qualities required. Agree it also provides insights into how to get the best out of the candidate if employed. The check involves setting an environment that feels safe for a referee to talk openly and framing one’s questions to draw out the real story. I like using a 1-10 scale – and questions like “what would have made that 8 a 10 for you?” provide brilliant insights. I would like to see more rigour and higher standards in our profession. Reference checking used in conjunction with a variety of other assessment methods can test and even reveal areas of strength and/or major concern. I get the need to not lose great candidates in a time-critical game through too many and lengthy processes in a competitive recruitment market (and yes referees can be damn hard to catch sometimes), but as mentioned reference checks can be a damn useful tool – even sometimes (but not always) more insightful than an interview.

  • Shauna-Marie Wilson says:

    I wonder if the requirement is used in order to create legally defensible grounds to reject candidates who might otherwise claim that they were discriminated against on the basis of some legally protected status.