Chris Russell

2 min read

Human Resources

Is the Reference Check still viable?

I was thinking about the old ways of recruiting and hiring the other day and began wondering about the long time practice of reference checks.

I went to one of my favorite HR groups on Facebook and posed the following question to the human resource pros who frequent there. I asked, how important are reference checks to you as an HR person? Do they still matter in today’s landscape?

In my previous recruiting jobs I found them rather useless but our CEO was insistent on doing them. In terms of anything useful coming form the conversations, my answer was almost always no.

Reference Checks Still Worthy

But there was a smattering of HR pros who came across the occasional gem;

  • Christina told me “There was ONE time I am SO glad we reference checked. It was super awkward, but the candidate had stolen from their past company. Some things don’t hit the background check due to timing or agreements made outside of the legal system.”
  • Amy agreed, “I still use them, I sometimes learn they were dishonest on the application. Oddly enough, family and friends they were employed by are sometimes VERY honest.”
  • Rhonda added, “By doing references, I uncovered twice that the resume was completely false – no such number, no such name or record of said person as an employee. Other than that you generally get what you would expect people to say.”

Larissa says it’s all about the way you approach the reference check. “If you know how to ask the right questions, they are a great resource” she said.

Reference Checks Not Worthy

The negative comments seemed to outweigh the positive ones in the thread. One commenter was very honest about it saying “It’s my least favorite part of working in HR.” Others chimed in with the following;

  • Lacie said: “I am required to ask for them, but personally I feel they are a huge waste of time. My time, the candidates time, the person I am calling. The majority of the time companies tell you they are unable to disclose anything. Every now and then someone will give feedback but rarely is it ever anything unexpected.”
  • Kay Jay: “Working at a financial institution, reference checks are part of our risk management policies. I do take them with a grain of salt we typically do 2, and if I get a negative reference I’ll try to do a third as well. They typically don’t carry enough weight to decide not to hire someone (unless we uncover something very serious) but can give us some information that makes it easier for our managers to quickly develop a good coaching relationship.”
  • Janet didn’t hold back: “Useless. There is a “fear of being sued” so I don’t think HR people or managers are going to give truly honest feedback. If you do get the run down on how terrible someone is that makes me feel their review is more personal. The references listed are always going to be the people who will speak highly of the person.
Mike adds: “Professional references are a crapshoot. Just because the candidate and the person listed say they worked together or that the latter was the candidate’s supervisor, doesn’t make it so. It can be hard to verify the alleged working relationships. Sometimes a follow up call to HR/Payroll can verify them but that is often a dead end. Sometimes a peek at the reference-provider’s LinkedIn will give you some idea of their credibility but not enough to prove or disprove their working relationship claims.”

“I still use them”, one executive said in the thread. “I sometimes learn they were dishonest on the application. Oddly enough, family and friends they were employed by are sometimes VERY honest.”

So there you have it. Are reference checks still a valid use of time? It seems to be a mixed bag according to this one little survey.

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