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In early 2003, I flew from Ohio to Oakland for a job interview with a prominent health care workers’ labor union. I’d already interviewed twice by phone and was excited to seal the deal during the in-person final interview.
I arrived on time, caught a cab to a nearby hotel, unpacked and ironed my clothes, and practiced all the things I wanted to cover in the interview. I tried to take a nap, but I was too amped for the interview. Later that afternoon, the hiring manager picked me up at the hotel and drove me to the organization’s headquarters in downtown Oakland.
As we crawled our way downtown through Interstate 880 traffic, I chatted with my driver/interviewer Ralph. I’m sure there was a standard exchange of pleasantries. “Yes, the flight was uneventful and we even arrived a few minutes early.” “Oh, yes, I had time to grab some lunch, thanks for asking.” Honestly, I don’t exactly remember most of the conversation. It was 17 years ago and I was a 23-year old nervous about whether I’d land a gig in the Bay Area or return to Ohio unemployed and devastated.
There is, however, one part I remember with crystal clear accuracy. As we were passing Alameda, Ralph said “So…” and paused. I’d later learn that this was a common signal that Ralph was about to drop a brilliant piece of advice, a biting piece of criticism, or some combination of the two.
“I spoke to your references,” he continued. Cool. I had solid references who certainly would have said great things about me. The guy who managed me on a political campaign in New England. The restaurant owner from my hometown who’d employed me for years. The lead organizer who supervised me on my first labor organizing campaign.
“And you came highly rated.” Nice! Internal fist pump and reminder to send “Thank You” messages.
“But…” Wait. Say what now? Why is there a “but”? This is not a conversation for “buts”.
“… one person I spoke to — and I won’t tell you who — said something interesting. He said ‘Andy Reid? Yeah. He smokes and he cusses a lot.’” “What the f — ing f — ?!?!?!”, I screamed inside my fuming head. That’s one less card I have to mail.
Eventually, my agape mouth closed and I started formulating a response. It was technically a true statement (and half of it is still true, dammit), so bluster and outright denial really wasn’t a valid option. I didn’t present me in a particularly good light, though, and needed a response. A cleverer man might have cracked a joke and immediately said, “I also don’t call my Grandmother often enough.”
Instead of a witty retort, I stammered my way through a “Well, that’s true in some settings, but I’m also professional and hardworking and blah, blah, blah-bitty blah.” I don’t remember exactly what I said. It was 17 years ago and I was a nervous, furious 23-year old kid who was suddenly very worried I’d flown to California for nothing. I’m sure I also really could’ve used a cigarette.
Long story short, the rest of the day was great. I ended up getting the job. For over 6 years, I did work that I’ll be proud of for the rest of my life. I met people who still inspire me to this day, including the woman I ended up marrying. I quit smoking (several times, in fact) while I was at that job. I was successful, got promoted a couple of times, and I think I even made Ralph proud of me.
At some point, I started hiring people for the same role Ralph hired me for in early 2003. I asked tough questions in interviews. I made people demonstrate that they had the empathy, tenacity, courage, and strength it took to be an organizer. I had them role-play difficult organizing conversations. What I didn’t do was check references. That afternoon in Ralph’s car scarred me for life and was the final nail in the coffin of a practice I’d always viewed with skepticism.
Point of references
My momentarily-traumatic experience is admittedly not reason enough for most people to avoid reference checks. There are plenty of valid reasons to avoid this practice, though.
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.
Why then would I ever outsource this decision to someone I’ve never met? I don’t know Bob from the restaurant you worked at during high school. Maybe he’s a good guy who accurately represents the work you did as a dishwasher. Maybe he’s an awful judge of character, a terrible manager, and a dishonest operator of an unprofitable business.
I once interviewed someone for a mid-level leadership position. He answered my questions fairly well. He had relevant experience. Something rubbed me wrong about him, though. I was firmly on the fence about him. Other staff on my team had worked with him previously and vouched for him. I was desperate to fill the position and based on his good references, I ignored my doubts and hired him.
As I was firing this person for some deeply inappropriate behavior several weeks later, I was reminded why relying on references and outsourced judgment is a terrible practice.
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.
When we brought candidates into the office for in-person interviews, we gave them a scenario and asked them to solve for a many-to-many relationship. It was a classic scenario straight out of an Intro to SQL textbook. All we wanted was to hear the words “join table” and hopefully see an illustration of one. I watched candidate after candidate after candidate whiff on this test.
In hiring, we try to limit the likelihood of a mistake by assessing whether the candidate has the right skills. Reference checks are, in theory, a way of doing this. As noted above, though, they’re doing it by outsourcing the judgment to someone potentially not qualified to make that judgment.
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.
Workers’ rights to organize against worksite injustices have been whittled down over several decades. Employer-based health coverage forces people to stay in jobs they don’t want. Non-compete and binding arbitration clauses in individual employment contracts limit the mobility of even low wage workers.
Job references are simply another means of empowering employers to retaliate against and limit opportunities for former employees. I once left a job after it was clear my supervisor had been dishonest with me regarding opportunities for advancement and salary growth. Why would I want to give such a questionably honest person the ability to impact my new job opportunities?
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.
As someone hiring, I don’t need an old boy’s network where another white dude tells me what he thinks about the black woman who reported to him. I’d rather just evaluate her on her own merits.
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.
For example, I had a great relationship with my manager at my last place of employment. He’s a stand-up person who’d surely say great things about me. Sadly, company policy prohibits him from responding to reference requests. Instead, he has to refer reference requests to the HR department.
Luckily, I also had a great relationship with the HR Director. We didn’t work together long, but we were able to collaborate on a few things. We also bonded over our shared adherence to plant-based diets. Unfortunately, company policy prohibits her from talking about any of that. Instead, she’ll only confirm my job title and dates of employment. This type of response is becoming more commonplace at workplaces across the nation.
What’s the point of that? At best, it simply verifies that an applicant didn’t lie on her resume. At worst, it’s misinterpreted as an assumption that an employee was so disliked at his last job that they just don’t want to say anything about him.
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.
A better approach would be to actually test that person’s experience in the interview process. Instead of asking unspecific questions from a “common interview questions” list, ask the applicant for a project that validates she’s not just a BS artist.
Have applicants whiteboard the join table example. Have them prepare and teach a class. Have them role-play a conversation. Have them write some code. Have them cook a dish. Have them weld some metal together. Have them do CPR on a dummy.
Whatever you’re hiring for, there’s a way to assess a person’s skills that doesn’t involve a reference check. References are outdated, unnecessary, potentially discriminatory, and have no place in the modern business environment.
Whew. I’m pretty worked up now and I could probably write a few more paragraphs on this topic. Unfortunately, I’m also looking for a new job and I haven’t talked to Ralph in a couple of years. I should probably reach out to see if I can use him as a reference instead of that other guy.