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Reference Checks: Will they lead to a happy ending?

I have recently been involved in an unorthodox recruitment, where the employer decided that proceeding with reference checks was an unnecessary step in the process. This experience made me re-examine my thoughts on the value and timing of reference checks for employment purposes.

Typically, reference checks are one of the last steps performed before proceeding with a final employment contract. Best practice dictates that this step be completed by a recruiter (not an in-experienced administrative assistant); who handles the complete recruitment process for consistency. Imagine my surprise, to discover there is a new school of thought – that asks for references at the very beginning of the recruitment process!

What is even more extreme about this new school of thought is that it involves automation. Please note, I am not referring to this annoying trend of e-mailing a reference questionnaire to previous supervisors. Almost everyone I have spoken to agrees that this is somewhat impersonal and insulting. Why should the reference save the recruiter the effort of recording the replies? Especially true when some questionnaires resemble the Magna Carta…. Further, how can the recruiter ‘read between the lines’ of a reference check when there is no interaction with the reference?

The type of automation I am referring to involves candidates applying online and then completing a self- assessment and providing references. The references then receive a short questionnaire (OK, references are being annoyingly e-mailed here as well); which is supposed to be able to be completed in less than 15 minutes. The questions are advertised as being designed to get job-specific and unbiased information about the candidate.[1] The results are then are run through an algorithm and presto, you have a list of suitable candidates. An interesting, yet impersonal concept; although I do like the idea of eliminating bias. This method could be very useful for large-scale recruitment endeavours.

Irrespective of which method of reference checking that is employed, I believe there are limitations in the value of this exercise. Regardless of the fact that a reference is considered a communication protected by qualified privilege and the person giving the reference cannot be sued for slander or defamation[2], some organisations have a policy of only providing employment verification. I find this only somewhat helpful for reference checking, but better than nothing. At least you have completed your due diligence.

If you are fortunate enough to connect with someone from an organisation that will answer your questions, it is unlikely they will give you a negative perspective of the candidate. I am fairly confident that most people could find someone (if not 2 or 3) they have worked with, to say complementary things about them or their skill set. Keep in mind, that depending on the length of time since the role, it could be challenging for former supervisors/employers to recall specifics. However, if the candidate can’t or won’t provide any references, it is a definite red flag.

The opposite of a no-reference policy is that of a false-positive reference. In light of the current economic situation in Calgary (where although our unemployment rate is reported to be declining – I am not convinced this is due to more jobs, just more individuals having exhausted their employment benefits) some references are overstating the qualifications of the candidate, as they are cognisant of the challenges in finding a role at this time. While this is a really nice thing to do, it is not overly helpful to anyone in the long term. A few acquaintances have lamented how they have recruited for the same position numerous times, as the candidate did not have the required skills.

Reference checks can be the differentiator between candidates. If you are fortunate enough to have 2 equally qualified candidates for a role (this could be your HR dream or nightmare, depending on your point of view) then Recruiting 101 advises that you move on to the reference check as the tie-breaker. This also assumes you are involved in quantitative interviewing techniques and not just going on your gut.

At the end of day, I believe that attempting to complete a reference check is always a good idea. It demonstrates that you are attempting to verify skills & experience and following best practices.

It is too early to say how the unorthodox recruitment will unfold. But to be fair, the company that decided reference checks were unnecessary had previous interactions with the candidate; therefore having more than an inkling of the skills they possessed. Hopefully this story will have a happy ending for all.

Looking for support in developing a recruitment process that is aligned with best practices and maximizes your ability to attract top talent? Or perhaps your organization requires some support in executing the recruitment process to find the right fit for your growing team. Check out Salopek’s Recruiting by the Hour support or give us a call to learn how we can assist your managers with recruitment training and process development.


[1] Day100 – How it Works

[2] Monster – Employment Law: Reference Checking in Canada

Other sources:

Urban Verified – LinkedIn Profile

Human Resources Today – Using References As A Screening Tool

Entrepreneur – What Happened To The Human Side Of Recruiting 

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