HR 101: Is the reference check dead?


"I’ve already decided they’re the right fit for the team. I want to learn how I can best set them up for success when they start."

Is the reference check dead? Yes! At least in the way that you think about them. You’re likely thinking about reference checking in the traditional sense. They’re built in to your recruitment process as a piece of due diligence. They’re meant to expose any final red flags or glaring reasons why you should NOT hire the candidate and they’re meant to be a reliable measure of a candidate’s skills, experience and character. How reliable are they, really? After hiring hundreds of people and conducting thousands of reference checks over eight years in talent acquisition, here are my thoughts.

When evaluating the effectiveness of your reference checking procedures, you need to ask yourself how often have you NOT hired someone after the reference check and was it specifically because of the conversation you had. The answer is probably very, very rarely.


What’s broken.

The all too common “If, the reference checks come back positive we’ll extend an offer” doesn’t sit well with me. A recruitment process that relies too heavily on reference checks is broken and in need of some TLC. 

Reference checks don't work as well as they should since candidates rarely provide contacts who they aren't sure will give a positive review. Following a strict reference checking process can also cost you valuable time. Job offers shouldn’t be delayed so your HR team can feel that they’ve checked a box. By waiting on reference checks, you’re losing hours or even days (hello international phone tag).

In a perfect world, our hiring decisions should be either ‘Heck Yes’ or ‘Heck No’ so why are we basing our hiring decisions on a short phone call with a third party? It's important to listen to our gut feeling at every stage in the process and not get overwhelmed by the desire (or desperation) to make a hire. 


How to fix it.

Many companies will extend offers contingent on the reference checks coming back positive. This allows you to kickstart the offer negotiation (if any). It gives the candidate a couple days to review the offer, to start thinking about giving notice, and to confirm their start date and allow your team to start preparing their onboarding. Since the candidate has the offer in hand sooner this often saves you time, and time is money.

Our Beacon Book Club is currently reading Who: The A Method for Hiring. It’s a good read. The authors suggest fleshing out one of my all time favourite interview questions even more. Where I like to ask ‘what would your references tell us about you’ instead they would have us ask ‘what would your previous managers say and what are their names’. The idea being that once someone gives you a name, it suddenly becomes real and attaches some accountability. It’s concrete and forces the candidate to be more truthful and transparent.

When you’re using this technique, remember the context. Is this a passive candidate you’ve headhunted? Is this someone who’s actively pursuing your company and the role? What stage of the interview are you asking this question and how are you framing it? If used improperly, this could come across as abrasive and deter the candidate from wanting to join your company.



If a formal reference check still makes sense for your company’s recruitment program, here’s some advice to live by. The reference check guide, or template, shouldn’t be a carbon copy that you pulled from the last company you worked at. It should be tweaked based on your particular culture and what skills you value most in your team members. Consider digging in on important skills for today’s world of work like adaptability and resilience. Don’t get trapped looking for culture fit but rather, find out how this new hire will be a ‘culture add’. Do the reference check by phone, not by email, so you can catch any subtleties in tone of voice. Finally, ask ‘why’ or ‘can you tell me more about that’ to get deeper on each question and answer.

When it comes down to hiring for my team, I’m having casual conversations with their references. I like to speak with two references including at least one direct manager. At that point, I’ve already decided they’re the right fit for the team so I’m hoping to learn how I can best set them up for success when they start.

The better question to ask yourself is what parts of your recruitment program need to be changed so you have more confidence in your hiring decisions at the final interview stage. You can check out our tips on how to review your hiring process here.

Is your reference check policy ready for a refresh? Has your company stopped doing reference checks altogether? We’d love to hear what’s proven for you.

What would your reference tell us about you?
Nicole DavidsonComment