Reference checks – Useless OR Useful?

In my experience, I would estimate that 90% of reference’s I have ever given have been a useless exercise. Well, not so useless for my dear ex-colleague who is trying to get a new job but certainly for the company taking them to extract something meaningful.

They have all shared 3 common fails:-

  • The questions asked have not changed since Australia became a federation in 1901. E.g. from 1-5 can you rate their reliability/presentation/communication skills
  • Carried out by someone that’s biggest challenge in life is “how can I type quicker…while you talk… so I can get this thing filed away for no one to ever read again”.
  • Carried out by someone that has no idea what the role they are taking a ref check is for and zero vested interest in the performance of the potential new hire. E.g. Office junior, 3rd

The 10% that have been useful have nearly always been conducted with the actual line manager or someone who has great vested interest in the performance of that potential new hire. (E.g. Owner of the firm, head of the division, experienced HR professional)

The 3 common traits that they shared:-

  • They asked questions to verify & clarify what the candidate discussed during the interview process and to further gain valuable insight into the behaviours, traits and decision making of the candidate.
  • They asked open questions “how, why, can you give an example” and listened to my answers without ever trying to put words in my mouth or influence my answers.
  • They gave me some hypothetical questions about the individual to clarify/verify decisions they may need to make about the role. g.  In your experience, do you feel the candidate would better suit Account Management or new sales development & why?

Reference checks are still a valuable tool if carried out in the right way and by the right person. They are less about “catching out the candidate” and more about learning how best the individual can be utilised or what management style they might thrive under.




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