Reference checks are a drag for everyone. You’ve finished the courting process, negotiated, and are both ready to commit: as long as some distant former boss or coworker says the right things. Generally, reference checks are used to confirm that a candidate walks their talk, plays well with others, and is being honest about their credentials. So what if I told you, as an HR professional, that I think you should never do a reference check again? Here’s why.
Positive reference checks don’t actually predict good performance.
References do a good job of telling you how a manager perceives a potential employee’s performance. What they don’t do, however, is paint a complete picture of all the factors that impact how an employee shows up at work. Were they provided with clear goals? The right programs, processes and tools for success? Was it an inclusive, supportive environment? Did the team cultivate enough psychological safety for someone to do their best work? Academic studies show that references as a standalone are generally a poor predictor of future performance, and to be effective, they’d require an almost impossible level of insight into the complex organizations and relationships the candidate was a part of.
References aren’t objective.
According to studies, women are half as likely to receive an excellent reference letter in comparison to men. If we zoom out, we know that relationships thrive on similarities, and workplace relationships are not excluded. If an employee was able to build a great personal relationship with their manager, chances are you’ll hear good things about them if you reach out for a reference. But if they didn’t connect on a personal level, the reference may be less than fawning. The process incentivizes the candidate to provide references that they’re personally closest to, and those who are most similar to their managers and coworkers are most likely to have many reference options to choose from.
Reference checks aren’t inclusive.
References are kind to people who’ve had positive work experiences. If you can look back at past work experiences without recalling any truly terrible ones, count yourself lucky. This is not the case for a lot of people, and definitely not the case for a lot of people from marginalized backgrounds with the experiences being worse with the more marginalized identities a person possesses. Discrimination is still very alive and well in our workplaces and so is harassment in various forms. Some of these instances are so traumatic that they lead to the individual having to resign from these positions. In cases like this, having to reach out to a former employer to ask for a reference (especially when your manager was part of the problem) can be difficult, or even impossible for the employee.
Candidates hate them.
After an interview process designed to determine if they’re a good fit, candidates often feel anxious, or even resentful to have their fate left in the hands of a third party, however well meaning. Stress about what will be asked (and shared) of their references, or about whether the behaviour or availability of their references will reflect on them, is common. If you’re looking to improve your candidate experience, removing this stressful piece of the process can be a game changer.
Even HR hates them.
Many HR pros we spoke to noted that they too don’t find references especially useful. However, many noted that they use them as a way to get information on how to best manage and work with a candidate. As an alternative, why not set up a call, with the consent of all involved, just for this purpose? There’s no need to make an offer contingent on it.
On the administrative side, references can take up precious time, both from a recruiter’s busy schedule and in the race to close top candidates. In a hiring market that’s already tough, references can add at least one week to the hiring process. It’s not an efficient use of anyone’s time.
What to do instead:
A good hiring process should help you determine whether or not a person is the right choice for the job, and your decision should not be reliant on validation from an external party. If an individual has been through a phone screen, interviews, and in some cases, assessments and they have performed well then I would say that they’ve proven themselves to be suitable and that should be enough.
Also, let's make room for growth and give people a fair chance. People evolve, and we should allow room for this. This means that asking for details on a candidate's performance from a few years ago may not be a fair assessment or accurate reflection of how they will show up in the new role they are being considered for.
A good starting point is to look at your current hiring process. Where do references fit? And what benefit do they serve? You just might find that references actually don’t add much value to the hiring process and at best, are only providing additional validation to what you’ve already learned. If this is the case, feel free to cut them. However, if you find that you are actually learning new information at the reference stage, it’s time for a redesign. Your interview process should be strong enough to tell you who you want to hire.