Why Reference Checks Need To End

The recruiting industry should be proud of itself. In the last 15 years that I’ve been fortunate to be a recruiter, I’ve spent time on the agency side, in-house corporate roles, and as a consultant (a real one, not the unemployed kind). I’ve been privy to seeing a number of amazing technological transformations in this industry that really only come along once in a generation. I’m constantly amazed – if not a little overwhelmed – at all the tools and technology we have at our disposal. We’ve been able to eliminate a lot of manual processes and busy work.

However, I’m mystified at the reluctance of companies in virtually every industry to begin moving away from one of the oldest, most useless processes HR and recruiting have ever embraced, the reference checking process. Yep, I think reference checks are garbage. And yes, while you may still need to do them and , they are about as useful as a North Face parka in Oahu…. ever.

To make my point clear, let’s walk through the hiring process in generic terms. We have recruiters that source candidates from the web. Then their resume (or CV – I’m cross-pond friendly) is reviewed, and presumably they have a relatively in depth call with a recruiter. From there, they might speak with a hiring manager or other person appointed to conduct 2 level screenings. Finally they come in and run the gauntlet for anywhere from 2-8 hours in an interview with the company. (By the way you 8-hour offenders know who you are. You probably have “waterboarding small animals” in the culture section of your website.)

After the grueling steps they have taken, the decision is made to make them an offer. Welcome, my friends to the top of the mountain. Game Over.

“BUT WAIT! We need to check references”.

If you haven’t been able to determine a good fit after these steps, you’re probably doing something wrong. What information is the reference check going to provide you, really? Sure, you get some snippets about “work ethic” and if they had attendance issues and all that jazz.

But, there are inherent flaws with that theory:

References Are Darwin-esque

You may not like hearing this, but reference checks weed out the truly stupid. Only threetimes in 15 years have I ever had anyone provide a reference that was so egregiously bad, that I recommended not hiring the person. Yes, even when we were THAT close to the finish line, AND when commission and/or a critical hire was on the line. Sorry, my reputation is worth more than the money I’m going to bank. Only the most unemployable of people would provide a reference name for someone they were not 100% sure was going to give them a glowing reference. And yes, while I believe stupid people exist everywhere, with a sample size of 3 in 15 years I’ll just assume everyone is going to tell me “Johnny was just a doll to work with”.

The Legal System Is At Least Partially To Blame

We live in a very, very litigious society. Say what you will about the loon with the McDonald’s coffee, but that opened Pandora’s legal box for-EVER. Many companies won’t do much beyond confirming dates of employment, title, and if you are really lucky, salary and eligibility for rehire. This gives you ZERO advantage in making a sound decision about whether to hire someone. This is because frivolous lawsuits are allowed, instead of taking those who bring them to court and tossing them in the asylum.

People Are Lazy

Recruiters and HR people can be lazy. The reference check is another thing, among 99 others that need to be “checked off” before someone can be hired. The sooner they get through it, the more they get off their plate. More often than not, people are going to ask the standard questions on their Legal Department-Approved reference sheet. They probably aren’t going to dig in further and probe when something sounds just a bit off.

Duh…. Technology

This won’t be a popular view, but you can find out pretty much all the things you need to know about a candidate just by doing a bit of searching. If you can honestly say you never looked up a candidate’s social profiles or other online presences, you can just stop reading now. Also, please dial up a shrink that deals with compulsive liars.

Technology has given us the ability to really fact check the things we need to know in most cases. In fact, there has even been a moderate movement to automate the reference checking process. Companies like SkillSurvey and Chequed have been around for a while and offer an automated reference checking process that is driven by the candidate. In addition, they each provide additional data such as the contact info of the references, and allowing them to opt in for future opportunities at your company. Some tools even have the “ability” to provide predictive insights on how well a person is expected to perform at your company based on what the references say and how it aligns with your weighted values. But this isn’t a sales show for tools. However, in the interest of full-disclosure, I’ve had the privilege of using SkillSurvey and find it to be a very useful tool.

Process Is OK…. IF It’s Efficient

The main point here is that we are wasting ever-valuable time on a dated process that provides little to no insight. Let’s take some sample math to look at it. Let’s say that a company hires 300 people per year (combining new hires and replacements). And that company employs a policy of 2 checked references for each hire. At 15 minutes per call, that’s 30 minutes per hire. So a total of 9000 minutes spent hearing the same lines over and over again. Please make sure you understand the math:ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY HOURS PER YEAR.

Too many companies spend time checking references, when they can train managers to be better interviewers, who can look for behavioral cues of a bad or good fit, or train recruiters who can do a comprehensive technical interview. The possibilities are endless for what they could do with all that extra time, to build a stronger team, rather than relying on an antiquated, hanger-on of a process.

It’s time to retire the reference check. We’ll find it a comfortable spot somewhere in the attic of HR, or wherever those paper applications are. Oh, and if you’re still using paper applications, you probably should have stopped reading this a long time ago.

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