Change in the world of recruitment can come lightning fast (see sourcing technology, social media) or glacially slow (candidate experience, interview techniques, and so on.). One such glacier-like practice in my mind is employment references. You know the drill: It’s offer time, and you ask the candidate for references. The candidate sends you some to call, you call them, they say some wonderful things about the candidate and you check the box as completed. Done and Done.
I am here to tell you that this is a practice that as it stands provides zero value. Yes – zero. Think about it from both sides of the coin:
You are doing something because it has “always been done this way”. The person checking the references is usually the recruiter – NOT the hiring manager who really should be having these conversations. Also, you are typically using a reference template or script with questions designed to either discredit or simply affirm the employee you are about to hire. On top of that, when you ask a candidate to provide you references what do you actually think you will get? Anyone with a brain and a pulse will provide you with people
who will of course say great things about them – what candidate in their right mind wouldn’t? On top of all of this, most companies/hiring managers rarely ever read them much less perform them themselves. They go to file or ATS purgatory. Some of you even send email reference forms for references to fill out because they have nothing else to do with their time. Ugh. Sounds fun and productive.
You have gone through the interviews and met the team. OK – the company wants to double check you are what you say you are. OK – how about I go ask some people I know will say what I told you I am already. I might be interviewing for several roles and have these people as references on those too, so I sure hope they are OK with several of these calls or “fill out this reference form” emails. These people are also usually busy, so I will give you their contact information and hope you connect with them. What’s that you say? It has been a week and you guys still can’t connect? OK – let me put every opportunity I am considering on hold while you folks figure it out. Also, most companies now will simply “by policy” verify only employment and tenure because we live in a crazy litigious society that will sue their asses if they say anything derogatory. So there’s that too.
This practice is more than broken – it is useless.
Soooo Mr. Smarty pants Ed – how do you fix it? Here’s how. Trust that you are making the right decision on your due diligence with the candidate. Interview better. Assess better. Have them do the job in front of you, like whiteboard sessions or presentations on business plans or hypotheticals if they were in the job. And when it comes offer time, instead of “doing the dance” because “it has always been done this way” if you MUST do references here is what I propose:
1. Hire a background check vendor to verify the information important to you like employment dates, education, and so on. (NOTE – NEVER, and I will say again in caps NEVER have them do your references for you – only verification. You think you are doing a monotonous routine, imagine how they handle it. I have seen this firsthand as both a reference and an employer – they do more damage than you think).
2. Ask for ONLY the candidate’s former managers only – and be reasonable. No, it is not OK to ask for their current manager (and companies actually do this) and no it is also not OK to ask for managers from jobs 15 years ago either.
3. If you are going to do #2, have an actual game plan of what you hope to achieve from these references. If you are doing assessments and proper interview techniques, identify areas you want to discuss further instead of the generic standard BS “do the dance” questions.
4. My favorite option – don’t do them at all. Be better at your job and training hiring managers to do theirs. No reference is going to stop you from sucking at interviewing someone as most (if not all) references provided are going to be positive unless the person is a moron so what is the point? If you can interview and assess effectively references are just an exercise in repetition.
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