Reference checks are a waste of time!

Controversial opinion? Perhaps.

And yet when you think about it, is “Past performance, really, the best indicator of future performance”? Honestly, I am deeply sceptical about that. I’ve spent the last 10 year hiring a bunch of sales people and recruiters, putting them through behavioural interviews, role plays, psychometric assessments and obviously checking their references, and yet, I’ve seen countless people who performed extremely well during interviews, and got glorious references from their past managers, who failed miserably in the job.


Now, I can hear you all saying that the problem was with the recruitment process, the interviewing skills/criteria, and maybe more realistically, that it was the work environment and the management of the candidate that were at fault for them not succeeding in the role.


No-one is considering that based on the reference checks, the candidate was quite/very successful in their previous job. Surely, if reference checks were THAT crucial to making the right hiring decision and if past performance is the best indicator of future performance, then why are we not reconsidering the reference checks when looking at the reasons someone didn’t work out in the job?


Because reference checks are useless.

They do not predict whatsoever the performance of a candidate in a new job. Last year, I followed a course on People Analytics, and data showed that it takes 2.5 years for senior candidates to achieve the expected consistent level of performance in the job. Sounds crazy right? I mean, if you work hard and apply yourself you should reach the expected level of performance quickly enough and maintain it. What my experience in L&D has shown me is that you can have employees who work hard and do all the right things and yet will not achieve the required level of performance during their first year on the job, let alone during probation. Mind you, you’ll also see people who do the bare minimum and also fail; regardless of their glorious reference checks.

There’s also a huge part of chance that plays in how a new employee will ramp up and perform. They could be assigned a really complicated project with unexpected internal and external roadblocks, or they’re trying to open a new market and yet have the same targets as people on established markets, or say a global pandemic hits and everything is thrown into turmoil. Remind me again how the reference checks predicted the performance of that person in these work circumstances?

Even if the person came from a similar company (or even a competitor) everything was different: the structure, the clients, the culture, and yes, being in the job longer than the ramp up period. When we ask “how did this person perform” during the reference check, the answer will be what the performance was at the T-time that the referee remembers? Maybe they remember that the person was almost fired during their probation because they were ramping slowly, or maybe they remember that this person was a top performer when they left. And if the person has been gone for a few years, maybe they don’t remember any specifics and you’re just having a gigantic confirmation bias call when checking their references.



Everybody lies.

No, I didn’t just feel like quoting House M.D. Literally everybody lies, that’s a constant in recruitment, and I get it as a candidate you want the job so we can expect a certain level of embellishing during the interviews, which is why structures interviews are so important. But when it comes to reference checks, what’s the end goal for the referee? What’s in it for them?


They’re giving their time on a purely charitable basis because a former employee asked them.

Now, if you had a very good relationship with your former manager, they might embellish your past performance, but if you had a relationship that wasn’t so good, what’s to say that they will only remember the times when you weren’t doing so well in your job (and I’m not even considering former managers being deliberately malicious). When we ask the question: “If you had the opportunity, would you re-hire that person?” the bias potential is enormous. Maybe you had a cordial relationship with your manager but they didn’t like you as a person and would not want to work with you again. Does that predict your future performance? I really don’t think so, but I’m very aware that we’re all humans, and there are people we worked with in the past that we wouldn’t have worked with if given the choice.



Managers are necessarily the best person to describe your job and performance.

Over the course of my career, I cannot recall the number of times my manager discovered some achievement of mine during one of my reviews or when a hiring manager completely randomly mentioned it.

While it may seem shocking, it is well established that good performers receive less time and support than poor performers. Yes, a performance improvement plan does take a lot more time than a “good job, keep doing what you’re doing”. Counter-intuitive, counter-productive, yes, and yet true.

So, when we insist on getting references from former managers only, we’re really not doing ourselves a favour; the feedback we’ll get will be highly dependent on the relationship that the candidate had with their manager, and on what they recall of the performance. If you insist on getting a reference, especially from a past job that was more than a couple years ago, get it from a peer or from a stakeholder. You’ll know from the start that there will be a positive bias (who’s going to give the contact details of someone likely to bad-mouth them?), but you’re more likely to be able to dig deeper into the skills of the person.



Company policies can prevent a candidate from getting a personal reference.

Many, many companies are protecting themselves by making it a policy to only provide the job title and dates of employment of past employees to potential new employers. And you know what, I’m ok with that. Back to the point above, everybody lies, and dates of employment are usually one of the main things people lie about, so getting that confirmed (or disconfirmed) is actually useful.

Another thing that amuses me to no end, is that a lot of these companies who won’t give personal reference do ask for one when recruiting new employees. “Surely their manager would do them a favour.” Yeah, right. No. Not if they put their own job at risk by doing so. What happens then? The candidate will ask someone to pretend to have been their manager, and you’ll get a reference that has zero value when it comes to predicting the future performance of the person. AGAIN.



What else then?

I can hear you cry and tear your hair out, but how will we ever make the right hiring choice without a personal reference or three?

Come up with a better interviewing process. Build a structured model, add role-plays or practical exercises, build a rating scale and train your hiring managers and interviewers. Will that mean that you’ll never make a bad hire? Hell no! But at least you’ll know that you have a solid process designed to properly assess the skills and past performance of a candidate.