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Don’t ask for references – they are useless

“Many employers ask job applicants for personal references. Justification for this practice is beyond me. There’s no valid reason to believe that these references will help you to identify potentially high-performing employees. The reality is this: We all have friends who will say or write positive reviews of us. If every job candidate can provide three “references” who will rave about their ambition, determination, conscientiousness, ability to work with others, and the like, what value do they add to the selection process? The answer: None.”

Stephen P. Robbins, The Truth About Managing People (2008)

This week I return to one of my favourite books to look at a practice I have long found strange: asking job candidates to provide personal referees. As Stephen Robbins points out in the excerpt: this practice has no known value.

The recruitment process is a selection process: it should be designed to help us filter out good candidates from bad ones. The reality is, none of us can predict how well or badly a person will perform once recruited: all we can rely on are certain signals that may suggest a probability of success or failure. That is why we turn to things like educational background, job experience, personal interests, etc. All of those are highly imperfect indicators of whether a particular person will do well in a particular job; but they’re often all we have to work with. And they can offer some clues, however flawed.

But a reference provided by a personal referee? Hands up now: how many of you employers out there have actually used this thing to push a decision? And how many employees think a personal reference has swung a job their way?

The truth is, none of us pay any attention to the personal reference: not the person in question, not the person providing it, and not the person requesting it. It is simply something we do “for the file”. It indicates that we followed “due process” during the recruitment; that we covered all the bases.

Think about it for a moment: we only put people down as our referees who we believe will write glowing references. The other ones never come anywhere near the CV! And pretty much all of us have a friend, a relative or a colleague in some position of repute. So what is the point of this exercise? These references will always be positive, always be bland and always be written in a hurry. How on earth do they help anyone decide anything?

It is important to check a candidate’s background, for sure. But there are more intelligent ways to do it. What we have is ‘lazy’ recruitment: Following the book, following an old formula. Assessing talent these days is a big deal, and we should stop doing it in the sad old ways. The best talent managers in the world do not follow the dull CV-shortlist-first interview-second interview-references-decision process; they think creatively about selection. They pinpoint the type of person that is needed for the job; they look for behaviour, not background, as evidence; they test suitability in different ways; they watch live reactions to situations, rather than study references.

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  • Riaz Gilani

    I’m facing this exact same problem. When hiring semi-skilled and low-skilled employees, there is a dearth of information about previous work experience. The answer always seems to be “kibarua” or “jua kali”…

    The main concern is always with the person’s integrity and potential output. What I face in my industry is a situation where the best workers remain with one firm for long periods of time, and the “rogues” move from one firm to another. We only find out that they’ve worked for a competitor and got sacked for dishonesty when we have to dismiss them for the same.

    This is why I now recruit from the pool of family members and friends of reliable employees. A case of the classic insider-outsider phenomenon.

  • Philip Mbae

    Reference checks are essential for some positions such as those that require confidentiality and trust. Instead of conducting background checks on references on the CV, a recruiter should call the organization where the candidate has worked and seek to speak with independent minded staff such as those in HR who understand value of reference checks.

    With recruiting going online, you can also check a candidate’s connections on LinkedIn and choose to check with credible ones.

    I have experience where a candidate was weeded out after a reference check confirmed that he had never worked in a company he had listed.