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Why Reference Checks are a Waste of Time


Asking a candidate who has made it to the last round of interviews for three references is such a standard practice that many companies have forgotten why they even ask for them. A typical reference check involves calling (or emailing) the three provided contacts, and asking about the candidate’s strengths, areas to improve on, and whether they would recommend the candidate for employment.

It’s possible that the hiring manager can gain some useful information from this conversation, but probably not. The only thing that has been actually verified is that the candidate has three professional contacts who have agreed to say nice things.

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There is a way to do this better. First, it is important to differentiate between reference checks and employment verification. There is definitely a place for ensuring that the candidate has represented a truthful employment history. But leaders usually don’t have time to waste talking to people who are going to provide predictable information just so they can check a box.

Instead, do two things: 

  1. Treat the reference check like an interview.
  2. Interview the right references.

Treating the reference check like an interview:

Just like you would when interviewing the candidate, think about what you need to know about the candidate, and what questions to ask that gets that information. If managing teams is the biggest part of the job, ask questions that give you examples of how the candidate managed teams. Keep it open-ended. This will give you better information than the “strengths and weaknesses” questions.

Interview the right references:

If the references the candidate provided are not current or former supervisors, it is totally OK to ask for supervisors instead. Often hiring managers feel it is somehow inappropriate to probe beyond what is initially offered. It is also fine to contact colleagues and internal clients (sometimes even external clients). But again, make sure the question is tailored to the role in question, and the person you are asking can provide the insight you are looking for.

And finally, don’t waste your time checking references if you can find that same information on LinkedIn. If there is a recommendation on there, it is unlikely that contacting that person will give you different information. Instead, use the information you find on the candidate’s profile to better decide who to ask, and what to ask them. Just as with the candidate interview, a little time spent planning will save you time and produce a better result.

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Written by: Allison Small, Co-founder and VP of Program Development and Execution, TalentCMO

Links and other interesting stuff:

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