Sohan's Blog

Living the Developer's Life

On Reference Checks: Don'ts

Most people eventually come across a time when they’d need to provide names of colleagues as references while applying for a new job. The referees are often involved in the last stage of the hiring process, when the employer is generally satisfied that the candidate is a potential hire. At this stage, the employer expects to find a few things:

  1. Verification of facts. The employer wants to confirm the validity of the information such as the role, responsibilities, and achievements provided by the candidate about their past experience.
  2. Qualitative feedback. The employer wants to understand the “cultural fitness” aspect of the candidate by asking questions related to the individual’s interaction and collaboration skills.

While these are valid goals, I personally find the practice of using references to achieve these goals to be a rather flawed one. Here’s why:

  1. References aren’t replacements for interviews. As an employer, the responsibility is on the employer to be smart enough to verify that the skills and experiences as advertised by a candidate’s resume reflect the reality. If the employer can’t do that with a reasonable amount of confidence, they’re likely to hire wrong candidates anyway.
  2. Likely outdated. If a candidate is currently employed, due to the secret nature of most job searches, they are unlikely to use one of their coworkers as the referee. As a result, the longer a candidate is employed by the most recent employer, the more outdated the references tend to get.
  3. Likely tampered. If a candidate wants to use a referee, they’d generally contact ahead of time with the referee. Even if they don’t contact, the candidates are likely to mention names of people that are almost certain to say good things about them. For any qualitative feedback, this setup limits the possibility of getting any negative traits of a candidate.
  4. Open to interpretation. Reference checks are often done over phone. Also, the person calling to check the reference often hasn’t met the candidate during the interview steps. This creates a double-blindness of sort. So, anything said during the reference check process suffers from possibilities of information gap.

In my opinion, if reference checks are used, they should only be used to verify factual information. That too, should be done keeping in mind that the information may be outdated, or intentionally biased.

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