September 22, 2021

Reference Checks Are Stupid


Episode Highlights

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Anyone can get 3 people to say something nice about them. So what are we really expecting to find out with the good old-fashioned reference check?

It’s perhaps the biggest example of “we’ve always done it this way” pointlessness in hiring.

And don’t get us started on “backdoor” reference checks. (Asking someone the job seeker didn’t provide, behind their back). Actually, we’ll go there too. More garbage.

Jeff Smith and James Hornick will tear down the pointlessness in Episode 28 of The 10 Minute Talent Rant, “Reference Checks Are Stupid”

Episode Transcript

The 10 minute talent rant is live. I’m James Hornick, I’m joined by Jeff Smith. As always we’re on the clock. The 10 minute talent rant is our ongoing series where we break down things that are broken in the talent acquisition and hiring space.

Maybe even pitch a solution too. Before we dig in as always, all of our content can be found at This week’s topic: reference checks are stupid. Yeah, I love these titles and making them by the way. I think it bares mentioning that we actively try and include “XYZ is stupid” in pretty much every title- or garbage.

We go back and forth. Okay. Story time. Once upon a time, everything you wanted to know about the world wasn’t just sitting there in the palm of your hand. I’m holding up my phone for everybody who doesn’t have the video here. You couldn’t just visit a company website to make sure they’re a real company or see what they did.

You couldn’t just go to LinkedIn or Crunchbase and find out more about them. You couldn’t just visit someone’s social profile, whether it’s LinkedIn or elsewhere to get a sense of what they were about. Couldn’t just do internet searches and all these types of things, like think hundred years ago- 1920s right. Old school.

And you’re trying to hire somebody and maybe you got a resume or something like that and you’re trying to figure out is this person even real? Is this company even real? You have no way to vet. How do you do it Jeff? You get a stone tablet. You did professional reference checks

because literally talking to somebody who you think is maybe more legit is the only way you had of verifying any of this stuff. Right. I mean, first of all, there was like five companies and there was like what, a hundred thousand people on the planet right? So finding someone at these companies who you knew, you knew was there wasn’t that hard, but anyway. I mean, I likened it to like bookkeeping was literally writing receipts

and a book. Like 22 cents carburetor. We weren’t hunting down the intricacies of whether or not somebody’s skill set was advanced or intermediate pivot tables you know? And so we were hoping for some literacy and some dependability and to that extent, yeah the only other option was to go and talk to other human beings who had talked to that person and say like, “Hey, what do you think of this person?”

So that’s the history lesson, and this is where we are now. So full disclosure, we still do- we still do reference checks. Everyone still does reference checks, but the question is, why are we still doing them? Like collectively, all of us. Why is this still a thing a hundred years later? And there is no better example in hiring of like, this is how we’ve always done it,

checking the box, covering your ass. That’s typically why reference checks are still done. And let’s be honest, you and I had a conversation about this before, too. I’ve been in this business for 17 years now. I’ve had exactly one professional reference check, come back bad.

I actually felt bad for that guy because he didn’t have three friends apparently. One, so collectively what- 30 plus years of recruiting experience? Yeah. Two, two bad references. Yeah.

What are we looking for? Are we trying to find weaknesses? It’s a classic human behavior. I mean, I get why people do it but this idea of trying to find something to rule somebody out is completely counter-intuitive to all the reasons that you’ve got to that point in the first place.

You’re holding someone else’s answers, i.e. the person that’s providing the reference with more weight than the actual candidate. You don’t trust your own judgment. It just comes down to the bottom line is you’re punting your decision to a complete stranger, which seems pretty foolish.

And you could say that’s even the best case scenario because the worst case scenario is you’re just doing it to do it for no reason. And at the end of the day, the only question that matters is what could they approve upon a question?

That’s the only one that like, and how many times can you hear “Well so-and-so just works too hard because when they commit to something, they really put their mind to it.” I mean every answer. “What’s the person’s biggest weakness?” Well, they run through so many brick walls that they get fatigued.

I mean all right, great. And the other thing here too is, taking it back a notch, legally speaking, there’s a lot of entities that won’t give references anymore. There’s a lot of organizations that they’re not allowed to actually give a reference. They can at best do an employment verification, which is totally fine.

But now you’re putting more undue pressure on the candidate to get creative about like, okay, so your last company, the one you’re at, won’t give a reference because they’ll either say you worked there or you didn’t. So now they’re trying to go even further back to find someone who’s maybe they’re only one year out of school who knows. The other side of that too, is maybe they’re leaving their job currently because their boss is an asshole

and why do you care what they have to say? Totally. Expounding on that and saying, look, when you are- putting somebody into a situation where they have to provide you references and their current corporate situation is such that they don’t provide reference checks. Does that immediately plant a seed of doubt into

the potential hiring entities’ brain that shouldn’t even exist in the first place. Like why can’t they give me the reference? Well I mean, is this a real corporate policy? Yada, yada yada. So anyway, all of this stuff is like intertwined. It is a legal liability to give bad references mainly because like, who am I to say if I had a bad experience or even like a somewhat neutral experience with somebody,

that’s it, my company and my unique circumstances with my unique team and my unique perspective, like who am I to say that that person can’t flourish? And I’ve seen people that I have that opinion flourish and other places, that they’re not going to be able to do that stuff in another situation.

Everything isn’t happening in like a vacuum. I’ve worked with people before that I didn’t think were very good. And they went on- some of them went on to have great careers. Was it me? Was it the company? Was it the situation? Good for them and it’s just one of those things. Why should what I have to say, have any bearing on their future or what anyone else has to say?

But let’s switch gears for a second here. Backdoor references. This is the thing it’s a little different. All right. So this is where you and I had a difference of opinion and backdoor references for those you don’t know, this is when you’re asking reference from somebody who is not someone that that person provided.

So the candidate didn’t say these are my references, you just happened to know someone they worked with before and you’re just going to ask “Ok, what do you think about this person?” And here’s the thing. People are going to do this no matter what, it’s pretty common. I’ve said that at least you’re going to find out what their “real deal” is.

You’re not just talking to someone who’s like one of their buddies going to tell you what they want to say. It’s still controversial. I’ve said the opposite though, too. In that candidates should backdoor reference companies because at least turnabout’s fair play. Like you should talk to people there to find out are they really who they say they are?

But what do you think Jeff? Well, so you’ve obviously put the positive 10. Mine’s very negative 10. I am not a fan of backdoor references, full stop. I’ll give you your trademark garbage. Look at it jeopardizes the individual’s privacy first and foremost. If somebody is passively looking and this gets out to anybody in the organization, you’ve got to, you got a sticky situation on your hands.

It places a totally an amount of weight predominantly speaking on like friendship relationships. I mean, a lot of these are just acquaintances, colleagues. I would prefer it be based on business acumen, but most of the time it is not and frankly like personal bias just plays a humongous role in all of this.

So how close were they with this person? Is it all anecdotal? Is this just a bunch of corporate gossip that’s just being filtered? I mean, I can think of two or three instances right off the top of my head where backdoor references went really, really sour and it filtered into borderline legal issues.

I mean, I have a few friends that are jerks. I have a few friends that aren’t very good at their job. Like who are you? Just because someone’s your friend doesn’t mean they should have any bearing again on your hiring. I digress. All right, fixes. We’ll run through these real quick. First, honestly, evaluate why you’re doing it. And I think this is the biggest thing, like are you asking references as some BS checkbox requirement?

And if you are just acknowledge that, you know. You don’t have to do it if you’re just doing it because you feel like you have to because we’ve been doing this for like a hundred years. I mean, pro tip, if you just have like the standard form and that’s what you’re completing day in day out,

probably a rubber stamp. Think about it. Think about if you’re going to do reference checks, use it for something useful. Instead of it being a yes or no, use it for professional development. Figure out stuff that you can use as a manager internally to help that person flourish. Yeah. I like that idea.

Make it like a teaching tool in terms of what would help this person. What management style would help them. What resource would be useful, if you’ve already made the decision to hire them that is. Just to reinforce like how to make that onboarding better. It’s actually Bernadette Polica pointed this out on LinkedIn the other day and we were talking about it.

So shout out to her. And last thing, just closing with like, look background checks are fine. Employment verification, it’s totally fine. That accomplishes the goal here. Reference checks like, fuck outta here- useless. Anyways, we’re short on clock. That’s a wrap for the week. Thanks for tuning into the 10 minute talent rant, part of the Talent Insights series, which is always available for replay on as well as on YouTube, Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify, and Amazon. Jeff,

great seeing you again. Everyone out there, see you soon.

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