Reference checking: is it a waste of time?

Is reference checking a waste of time?

I have recently had a number of clients ask this question in regard to recruitment of new talent while running recruitment services for them. It’s usually followed by a statement such as “surely candidates are always going to provide a referee who will only say good things about them”.

Seems logical I guess. It’s true that candidates are unlikely to provide a referee that they think will say horrible things about them… but it’s a little bit more complex than that. Having been responsible throughout my human resources career for providing recruitment services across many roles and industries, my opinion on this topic has been developed by real life experience.  Let me tell you, I always reference check, thoroughly.

In this blog post I will address the notion that candidates will always provide referees who will only say good things about them. I’ll also provide you with some tips on how to get the most out of reference checking.

In my experience there are two main reasons why candidates don’t always provide referees who will only say good things about them. Firstly, many candidates may have a misguided view of what their leader thought about their performance. Sometimes this may be a result of the candidate’s performance results not being properly communicated to them. Other times it may be because they simply lack self-awareness or refuse to accept their own development areas. Therefore, in many instances a candidate may genuinely be expecting their referee to provide an A+ reference because they feel they have been an A+ performer. The reality is though that most referees are willing to talk frankly or at the very least provide some cues as to the candidate’s true performance. Secondly, I find that the majority of management level referees are professionals who value honesty and integrity over doing a favour for someone during a reference check. This is particularly true for those that had a true manager to employee reporting relationship with the candidate. Hence, a valid referee is likely to take the reference check seriously and reveal valuable insights into the person’s previous performance and conduct.

Here are some questions to ask yourself during the reference check stage of your next recruitment drive:

Question 1: Who are the referees?

Previous performance is likely to give you a view of future performance. To check someone’s previous performance it is important to speak with the person who was completely across it. That is, the candidate’s current or former manager or in some cases the next level up manager. Colleagues, clients, and other stakeholders may not have been aware of any performance gaps the manager  experienced with their employee. Remember, you plan to be the candidate’s manager too, so a manager’s view is most relevant.

Where the candidate has not listed any current or former managers, it’s ok to politely question why this is and request them to produce different referees. Recruitment screening is essentially a step by step process to reduce the risk of hiring someone unsuitable. Therefore, where a candidate is unwilling or cannot provide the correct type of referee, the risk of you regretting a hiring decision increases.

Clients and stakeholders may be able to provide some valuable insights into attributes such as customer service, responsiveness and rapport but these types of referees are best used to complement the references of former reporting managers.

Question 2: How did the referee behave over the phone?

All reference checks should involve a number of specific questions about the candidate’s previous role, skillset, performance and behaviours. Seasoned recruitment services professionals listen to the cues in the referee’s answers (whether they were meant to be heard or not!) and probe anything that might give specific insights into a candidate’s real performance. Be cautious of reference checks where the referee:

  • starts to answer and then hesitates, as if they are retracting something they were going to say;
  • takes long pauses before answering, as if they are being overly careful with their words;
  • only makes positive high-level comments about the candidate but doesn’t provide any detail or real-life examples;
  • seems to use non-language responses such as deep sighing or “hmmm” when they are thinking as opposed to readily providing positive feedback. Or they use non-committal language such as “I guess so” or “she’s pretty good” when you ask them a question about a specific aspect of performance.

If you receive any negative vibes about certain topics, explore them further until you are satisfied that you understand the pain points.

Question 3: How consistent are the responses across all referees?

If you check 2-3 references and they all have a slightly different slant on how the candidate performed, there may be a problem. The best talent will have their leaders singing to the same tune about them creating a solid consistency amongst the references.

Standout themes will also appear in relation to 2-3 specific skillsets. For example, one referee may briefly mention how the candidate was a key office ‘go to’ person due to their in depth understanding of Excel. Another referee may provide an example of a project they participated in where their Excel prowess contributed to the success of the project. We all have our strongpoints and a referee should be aware of these, and naturally lean towards the ones that are most dominant. Quite simply, if all referees are confirming the same specifics, then what they are saying is more likely to be true.

Is checking references a waste of time? I think not. When they are done well they can be a valuable addition to the other screening steps of the talent acquisition process.  Just like you shouldn’t hire someone purely from glancing at their resume, you also shouldn’t hire someone purely based on their references. Therefore, we recommend in order to get the best results, always take the time and effort to conduct a thorough screening process. If you require assistance with your next hire, contact an expert recruitment services provider such as Industryus HR.


Shelly Baker is the founder of Industryus HR, a HR consulting firm which works with SMEs throughout Australia to improve employee productivity and performance through strategic human resources and recruitment services. Shelly has worked in a number of senior HR roles, including having recruited from entry level to executive level roles across various industries in the private sector.  If you would like to explore other options than a recruitment agency, make an enquiry today about Industryus HR’s recruitment services by calling 1300 15 10 11 or sending us a message below.

Back to Blog