Asking for References is Dead, Long Live Asking for References

As we have clearly moved into an job searcher market in hiring, there has been stronger voices hammering down the fact that most interview processes are broken. In particular, most interviews still feel one-sided, and posts on social media flipping the script on its head are gaining more visibility. And rightfully so. There are a lot of things that can be improved in how most interviews are conducted today, but my personal grief in this article is going to be reference checks.

The fallacy of reference checks

Reference checks are usually the last step of most interview processes before an offer is extended to a candidate. It involves contacting people the candidate has listed as references and asking these people questions about the candidate. Those questions are meant to check the candidate's claim in regards to employment history, skills, and experience. They also serve as another input to assess for culture fit. Usually, references are former managers or colleagues of the candidate.

Reference checks used to be merely administrative, checking for employment history and credentials. It has since morphed into a way for companies to further drill down on making the right hire by asking wide-ranging questions about the candidate to their former managers and colleagues. They serve as an important last validation on a candidate and they help uncover the candidate's strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, they help companies hire the best candidate.

In practice though, detractors of reference checks argue that they do little more than confirm existing decisions on a candidate. By offloading part of the decision process to references, hiring managers shield themselves from taking full responsibility of making a bad hire. Any information gleaned through reference checks also tend to be fairly positively biased towards the candidate, as candidates will most likely only list references that would talk favorably about them. In some cases, references are simply asked to fill in a form that will never be used in the hiring decision process altogether, hence putting in jeopardy the actual usefulness of reference checks in the first place. As such, reference checks seem to be more of an administrative step in the interview process than an actual source of high-quality signals on potential candidates.

Reference checks can be valuable tools if used properly. They are by definition biased, so any signals gathered from them should be properly metered. Running useful reference checks is also a complicated task that requires training and coordination. Thus, it is fairly difficult to generate valuable insights on a candidate from reference checks, and, in my opinion, anything that doesn't bring value to a process should, more often than not, be dismissed.

The power of reverse reference checks

On the other side of the spectrum, a practice that is slowly gaining steam is doing reverse reference checks. Those stem from potential candidates asking companies for a list of people they can talk to about the company. Those people can be existing or past employees. This step is usually not part of a traditional interview process, so expect some push back when asking for references.

The benefits of talking with past and present employees from a candidate perspective are similar to those previously discussed in traditional reference checks: it allows you as a candidate to confirm that you are about to join a company where you can thrive and do your best work! It can be a good opportunity as well to gain more knowledge on the company culture, on the team you are applying to, the actual nature of the work you are expected to do, and the manager you might be reporting to. It can also be a powerful tool for underrepresented candidates to assess the company's efforts in regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) beyond the niceties they can read on the company website or hear from the recruiters.

From a company's perspective, it might be extremely valuable to be proactive at providing references to potential candidates. By being proactive or even just open to reverse reference checks, you signal to the candidates that transparency is not just a buzzword in your list of values, but that you truly embrace it. It also signals to the candidate that you truly value them and want to set them up for success, as those reference checks might help their decision on taking that next step in their careers. As much as traditional reference checks can help uncover last minute mismatches, so can reverse reference checks, albeit in a reverse power dynamic.

As a candidate, at least until more companies start offering reverse reference checks proactively, asking for references back when asked to provide your own references can be a great leverage in providing the information that you need to decide on joining a company.

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Multicultural software engineer passionate about building products that empower people.