June 1, 2023

4 Things Everyone Keeps Screwing Up With Reference Checks


Partner at Hirewell. #3 Ranked Sarcastic Commenter on LinkedIn.

I struggled with my clickbait headline this morning.

Reference checks have come back in a big way. With a tighter market comes more careful hiring. More in depth due diligence. We’re seeing a lot more places run checks (and more detailed checks) compared to the 2021’s ‘hair on fire’ hiring spree.

But a Hill I’ll Die On™️: the nature of reference checks continues to be misunderstood. Food for thought:

👉They are not for hiring decisions. They’re for training and development insights for the person you’ve already decided to hire.

The combined 6 hours (making up numbers here) of time your team spent interviewing a candidate? That’s how you make your informed hiring decision.

If it can all be undone in a 15 minute chat with not-the-candidate? You’re doing something really, really wrong.

The entire nature of checks is to ensure your hire is successful by gaining insights into how they work, communicate, etc.

If they are who they say they are? That’s the background check and the employment verification.

If they’re right for your environment and role? That’s your job as an interviewer.

👉Great candidates can work in not-great environments. Or places that weren’t a great match.

Once upon a time, you (literally you reading this) worked in a job that sucked. Or at the very least, a good enough place that wasn’t the right fit. Then you found a much better match later where you crushed it.

The question is: what would your old manager say about you?

That also plays into why they can’t be used as the basis of hiring decisions. You will never know the group dynamics and business climate at the moment in time. Or how they played into the success and failure of one individual. Based on what a total stranger (who could be full of BS) tells you.

Speaking of…

👉Backdoor reference checks are inherently problematic but we’re stuck with them.

I could write a list of airtight reasons why backdoor references are garbage. And you’d agree. But you’d still do them.

It’s human nature. If we know people who know the candidate, people are going to ask about them.

But before you do it anyway, I will remind you of 2 things:

1. Outing someone in a job search is incredibly sleazy. And cruel.

2. We all have friends who are idiots.

To this day, I remember an A+ hire we made. Later, someone we knew told one of our colleagues “Oh I can’t believe you hired so-and-so, they’re crazy.”

Funny thing? That “feedback” was absolute nonsense. No basis in reality whatsoever. Thank God we didn’t hear that beforehand and make a terrible non-hire decision.

👉If your offer is contingent on reference checks (or background or drug) SAY SO.

If you don’t explicitly say this up front, job seekers will do crazy things like…turn in their notice to join you. Then have a panic attack when the offer isn’t final.

Partner at Hirewell. #3 Ranked Sarcastic Commenter on LinkedIn.

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