Are Reference Checks Worthwhile?

I often hear people talk about Reference Checks.  Usually, people describe Reference Checks as a formality.  It’s as though they can’t imagine getting any useful information from them. Depending on the situation, when I overhear these conversations I’ll share my opinion … or I’ll just mind my own business.


When I hear someone say something different about Reference Checks it catches my attention. A conversation that I recently overheard reinforces what I know firsthand about Reference Checks and what has been indicated in the Industrial / Organizational (I/O) psychology literature.


So, a couple of weeks ago I heard somebody describing his experience when providing a Reference Check in the context of a candidate who wished to volunteer to do some work for a charitable organization.


Thumbs Down
Thumbs Down due to Reference Check

This candidate has at least 15 years of professional experience as a lawyer. Plus, this candidate has a Master’s degree. His areas of legal practice make him an especially good fit for this volunteer organization that provides housing to vulnerable clients. As part of his application to become a volunteer with this organization he had to provide three names (with contact information) who knew him and his work well. I listened to the reflections and commentary from one of this guy’s references. He, the referee, was absolutely shocked that he spent 30 minutes on the phone answering very detailed questions about the volunteer candidate’s past professional performance, character, and specific behaviours. It sounded very much like the competency-based approach to Reference Checks that I advocate and recommend.


I kept thinking “wow, this organization really has their act together!” and this is for a volunteer position when the role didn’t really require a Master’s degree or a law degree. The Reference Check was not about verifying credentials or knowledge. The organization-specific knowledge will be learned within the context of volunteering. Credentials can be checked fairly easily. Mos job or volunteer position-specific knowledge can be learned on the job. This Reference Check was primarily about getting a good sense about this candidate’s behavioural competencies which are often described as soft skills (e.g., teamwork, judgement, communication skills, etc.).


I share this story here because it’s a reminder about the number of times that I’ve had to convince clients that the Reference Check is worth conducting — and worth doing well.


When properly structured, a good Reference Check will give employers and organizations valuable insights about the nature of the qualities that a candidate will contribute. I like to focus on actual behaviors within the context of past situations. When the referee’s answers lack sufficient detail it’s quite likely that the referee is bluffing, overstating, or worse. Unwillingness or an inability to provide unrestrained, substantiated commentary often raises red flags.


Red Flag Raised by Reference Check
Watch for Red Flags

In addition to creating structured Reference Checks, I provide assistance with other parts of the hiring process (e.g., screening criteria and interviews) to businesses and organizations who want to make sure that their hiring processes run smoothly and result in excellent hiring decisions.


Want to discuss any of this information? Please feel free to contact me by emailphone, or via direct message on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.


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