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Why it’s time to stop asking for job references

A grey-haired man in a suit talks on telephone.
Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash

Point of references

Three women talk in a conference room
Three women talk in a conference room
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

References outsource judgment to random strangers

As a manager, I’ve always found hiring people to be one of the scariest things I have to do. It’s making a gut call on someone based on projections and a limited set of data. If the call is a bad one, then the results for both the organization and the employee range from unfortunate to tragic.

References provide a poor test of prior experience

At my last job, I routinely interviewed candidates for positions requiring experience normalizing data and designing database schemas. We only spoke to candidates whose resumes and initial phone screens indicated they had experience with SQL databases. If I’d bothered to check applicants’ references, I have no doubt they would have vouched for their SQL experience.

References give former employers too much power over employees

It’s almost indisputable that in the United States the balance of power between workers and businesses is tipped heavily towards employers.

References further sideline marginalized people

Multiple studies have shown that managers — the people who provide references — are disproportionately likely to be white men. This means that the employer power dynamic discussed above can tilt even more against certain groups of workers based on that white man’s bias.

References are increasingly worthless anyway

One of the few upsides of our excessively litigious society is that references are rapidly becoming the anachronistic relic they should be.

No check, please

So do reference checks provide any value at all? They have to. Surely people wouldn’t waste time calling references if they weren’t getting something out of it. Right? What I think references do provide is a way to validate whether what a person has said about themselves in an interview is true or not. It’s just not a very good way of doing that.

Good cook | Experienced organizer | Decent programmer | Slow marathoner | Terrible woodworker

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