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Should we do away with reference checks?

Why reference checks should really be taken with a grain of salt.

Some organisations have chosen to downplay the importance of reference checks during the recruitment process. That’s because they are increasingly recognising that weighting the importance of them too highly can in fact distort the selection process.

Here are some of the serious flaws with reference checking:

Referees are often prepared to say little

A reference check is no longer confidential. In many countries a job candidate can obtain transcripts of reference check discussions or copies of written references. This can often lead to a very cautious approach being taken by those being asked to provide a reference. The threat of legal action (defamation) being taken against an individual or company as a result of providing a reference is real.

References are context bound

When a referee provides information about a candidate, they usually provide commentary around the candidate operating in a unique context: a specific organisation, department or job role. No two organisations are the same, so without substantial knowledge about the organisation that the candidate is seeking to enter, referees are unable to provide insight into how they will operate in a different context. Referees focus on past performance in one context, not on the future.

The case of the competitor

When an employee leaves an organisation to go to another, it’s quite often the case that the employee will go to a competitor. Without going into detail, reference checking can be fraught with bias in this situation. And in some cases, a competing organisation might not be prepared to provide a reference.

Overstated references

One of the more serious problems with reference checking relates to the underperforming employee. Just imagine an underperforming employee in your organisation has been shortlisted for an interview for a position in another organisation. As the employee’s line manager, you see this as a real opportunity to move the underperformer on. You are asked to provide a reference, and in order to maximise the chances that the underperformer gets the new position, you overstate their capability.

Candidate self selection

The referee checking process starts with bias – simply because candidates for positions usually nominate their own referees. They are not going to nominate referees who they believe will deliver anything but a glowing reference.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of flaws – but I am not suggesting for a moment that reference checking should be discarded completely in a recruitment process.

What I am suggesting, though, is that we need to reduce the level of importance that we attach to referee checking, and consider these factors before making the decision to select a candidate.

See our previous article about why reference checks can be problematic. 

Professor Gary Martin is Chief Executive Officer, the Australian Institute of Management WA, Board Director, and an International Management and Leadership Commentator. This is an edited version of his LinkedIn article

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