I Worked With Them
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I Worked With Them

The problem(s) with job references

…no, I don’t know what this means either

You’ve gone through the application process, held multiple stages of interviews and completed the assessments, now, the final ‘hurdle’ — reference checking, simple right?

As they currently work though most references are generally pretty useless, for a few reasons:

  • They happen at the end of the recruitment process

By this point you have spent a decent amount of time with someone, probably already set on your decision, are fatigued with the whole process and are just looking for someone else to give you the nod of approval so you don’t feel like it would entirely be your fault if they turned out to be crap.

  • There is no ‘skin in the game’ for the reference

They likely don’t care if the employee is a ‘dud’ in the new company, they lose nothing, in fact, they are often incentivised to tell a few white lies as they know (and may be friends with) the person they are a reference for.

  • Questions asked to the reference are often weak

Interviewers rarely go in with a structured process to references, asking broad questions like “Tell me about candidate”, “How did you find working with the candidate?”. They won’t ask the difficult questions, often because the feeling is that the reference is ‘doing them a favour’ by speaking to them (and in a way they are, they are taking time out of their schedule to speak to someone they have no affiliation with).

  • Lack of validation

This can work both ways, a reference can give either an overly positive reference or a negative one and because these reference sessions are rarely treated like another interview the interviewers don’t dig into the detail and ask for examples to back up the reference’s statements. They just take them as written, meaning the reference is largely a waste of time and a box-ticking exercise.

  • The reference may not be who they say they are

This one is a bit more out there but how is the prospective employer sure that person providing the reference isn’t just a friend or someone they worked with not for? How accurate and unbiased is the reference going to be in such circumstances?

All of these issues mean that I suspect, references are given very little weight in recruitment processes, with a simple heuristic being applied of “no-one gives a bad reference so unless they say something really bad then we’ll hire them anyway”, not “the reference needs to prove to us that we should hire this person”. We end up applying the logic of hiring ‘except for’, instead of hiring ‘because of’.

What can we do?

So, what can we do to address some of these issues and make sure references aren’t just a waste of time?

  • Bring the referencing process forward in the recruitment process and make it structured

Provide the references with a standard set of questions to answer and ensure they are forced to provide back-up detail behind each. The questions should be as carefully thought through as those going to the candidate themselves and should not be generic.

It may take them a little longer but you’ll be surprised what people are prepared to do for people they believe in and would want to work with again if they don’t take the time it probably shows that they don’t care as much about that person — a data point on the reference in itself.

  • Do a little bit of sleuthing

Check the reference’s role back to their LinkedIn or company website. If neither of those is possible make sure you include additional questions as part of your structured set to test they have indeed managed the person applying.

  • Skin in the game

This is where I Worked With Them comes in.

Firstly, references can only vouch for one person at a time on IWWT, so they better choose their best person. Secondly, we have a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule (a strike being where an employer disagrees with the reference), after each strike the reference has to explain their comments provided in order to continue using the platform (and not, therefore, be able to make any further money through I Worked With Them if they receive the strikes). Their fee is also only released on successful completion of a probationary period at the company. We are also looking at ways references can ‘stake’ their reputation on an individual to give them something more to lose for ‘bad’ referencing.

If you found this article interesting, you can find more on the topic here, and don’t forget to check out I Worked With Them.



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