The Traditional Reference Process Is Broken

Once upon a time a manager, we’ll call her Katie, found the perfect candidate for her job opening, we’ll call her Sarah.  After a few weeks of spending time with Sarah, Katie was excited to make an offer and hire Sarah to start immediately.  Before the final paperwork was signed, Katie asked Sarah for a list of her top three references so she could confirm all the great things she was feeling about her as a superstar.  Katie picked up the phone and made contact with each of these references spending 2-3 minutes on the phone with each while they went on and on about how amazing Sarah was and how she should be hired immediately.  The references confirmed everything that Katie already thought and two weeks later, Sarah started in her new job.

Katie fired Sarah six months later.

Why you ask?  Because the reference process is broken.

The traditional reference process calls for an employer to ask a candidate, in this case Sarah, for her references.  What should happen is Sarah lists her last few managers and Katie then calls to learn the truth about Sarah.  What always happens is Sarah lists her closest work friends/managers that have employed her in the past and Katie calls to learn how amazing and flawless that Sarah really is.  It is impossible to learn the truth about Sarah through this process as these “references” have been tipped off ahead of time to help their friend secure this new position.

Recently I was asked to be a reference for a former employee.  I received an email with a list of questions to answer.  I gave glowing reviews of this former employee because she was great, and I would choose to hire her again if given the chance.  However, I started thinking about how flawed the reference process truly is.  If I found this former employee to be despicable and absolutely the worst employee I’ve ever had, then there is a 100% chance that she would never have listed me.  Rarely have I been asked to be a reference for a former employee that was marginal.  In fact, I’ve never been asked to be a reference for anyone that I’ve fired and I would be shocked if that ever occurred.

I’ve written before about the worst hire that I’ve ever made and it proved once again why this reference process is broken.  I called three of the listed references and they all gave glowing reviews.  They were short conversations that ended with everyone saying I absolutely had to hire this individual.  In no way do I blame these references, they were doing the job that they were asked to do, which wasn’t to answer my questions honestly but to be a good friend to the candidate.

If you are still using the traditional reference process when hiring then you are making a mistake.  Feel free to ask for the references but use other sources to call people that the candidate has worked with in the past.  You of course want to avoid tipping anyone off that they are interviewing with you if they are still employed but you can ask questions like, “I’m looking for a candidate to fill this role, should I contact Sarah or would you recommend her?”  Make the reference think that you are simply searching for candidates rather than actually interviewing this individual.  Use LinkedIn to find peers of the candidate or former managers who may have moved on to other companies.  These individuals will give you the true story of the candidate, not the lies that the friends are being asked to tell you.


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