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The Farce of Verbal Reference Checking

By August 25, 20162 Comments

I flew to England last weekend on something of a busman’s holiday that, when factoring in the unscheduled landing in Bali to jettison a sick child and consequent rush through Dubai airport to make the connecting flight, was pretty much 28 hours on a plane.  This provides an unbridled opportunity to just think, and my mind wandered, as we flew over places like Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Turkey about the new world of work I was flying above.

The recent rise of freelancer platforms like Upwork, Freelancer and Guru mean that freelance workers, from graphic designers and software developers through to accountants and ghost writers, can live in and work from countries like these, and many more, to provide their services directly into businesses anywhere else in the world.

It’s an incredible development disrupting how companies procure and supply services.  And, of course, it has caused an increase in competition, fevered race-to-the-bottom price cutting, and a system whereby quality of work seems to be falling off a cliff.

This was really brought home to me earlier this week when someone in my team shared this with me from

fiverr ref

Aside from the alarmingly bellicose company logo, the fact this service exists, is seemingly legally sound, and openly offers to provide a reference covering:

  • Employment (as your actual employer or existing employer)

seriously brings into question the veracity, or even the point, of verbal reference checking these days. It’s little wonder the US have (according to a US recruiter who worked for us a couple of years ago) completely moved away from verbal reference checking now, and in the UK usually the most you can get out of a past employer is confirmation of employment dates and job title.

All this was brought home to us recently with a candidate on a short-term contract who, it transpired, had provided fake references (something thankfully discovered before any damage was done).  Then just yesterday we received this feedback from a senior recruitment leader who ran a large NZ recruitment team:

I have done several refs for staff in the last 6 months. Recruitment companies typically have a list of questions that are a tick box exercise. Always painful. When I am called directly by the hiring manager it is conversational and meaningful. Ie. ‘let me describe the role and the critical aspects. How would they cope in that situation’. Not 20 questions like ‘were they creative or were they punctual.’


Image result for bored on phone gif

We have had a couple of instances recently whereby the client has asked us to take one reference, and the company GM / CEO has decided to take another. Is this distrust in the reference we as an agency can provide? Or are they aware of the increasingly banal uniformity of this pre-employment dance and keen to ask the more meaningful kind of questions suggested above?

What is clear, I think, is that the days of the “formal verbal reference check” are numbered. In fact they have already disappeared from the recruitment puzzle in many larger markets globally, and one day New Zealand will doubtless be there too.

Image result for british flag whiteboard

Right that’s if for this week. I’m off to London today to talk to some recruiters and find out what’s happening in our industry in this part of the world, so stay tuned for the next few weeks for the UK series of The Whiteboard…


Jonathan Rice

Director of New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice & Co, co-founder of freelance recruiter platform JOYN, and people-centric technology firm superHUMAN Software. Recruitment innovator, agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Andy says:

    Interesting – especially as I was asked to take refs myself today (as opposed to a colleague offshore) for the very same conversational chat you mention, as opposed to a ‘marks out of 10 for communication’ process. Enjoy the UK, and whilst there, let us Kiwi based folks know if this ‘Brexit Exit’ I read about is *actually* happening? Lots of local talk here, and stuff on LinkedIn and in the press, but I am yet to really see it in my candidates. Your on the ground info would be welcomed.

    • Jonathan Rice says:

      Cheers Andy, I think GB’s performance in the Olympics has made everyone forget about Brexit, to be honest!