The value of references in the hiring process

There is a lot of social media white noise around the value of references in the hiring process.

As with everything today opinions are divided and polarised.

I mean….. really?

People actually feel strongly about references?

Seemingly they do.

Pros and cons

Many people underestimate the value of references in the hiring process. But that can be a big mistake, because if done correctly they frequently reveal a lot of useful tells.

Candidates usually propose their own referees, so they obviously expect to be spoken about in glowing terms. They will also specifically brief their selected referee on the points to cover, which is why many people think they are a waste of time and  potentially invalidate anything they are likely to say.

This can be true, which is why obtaining meaningful references is an essential and real skill. Many recruiters  receive little or even no training on this which is why the process can be dismissed so easily and undervalued.

Glowing references

As today’s job seekers become increasingly sophisticated, especially at a senior level , it’s important  to be able to pick through the smoke and mirrors to find out what really lies beneath the surface.

Today everyone encourages candidates to orientate their CVs towards each specific opening. Many job seekers hire skilled resume writers to showcase their talents and career stories. A polished, perhaps even coached interview performance will seal the deal.

What it is not!

Reference seeking is not a chat or quick call with a nominated person or business associate from the candidate’s previous career, or a substitute for other forms of rigorous assessment.

Nor should it be based on idle network gossip. If there is smoke then the fire should be systematically tracked down! Very often market whispering can provide valuable feedback if processed correctly.

Unless the role is relatively junior it won’t be a box ticking exercise requiring yes/no answers.

Is Joe a good team player?


Describe a situation where Joe contributed to a team project and what skills he demonstrated? How did  they add value and complement other skills in the team?

Not a predictor of future success

One argument suggests that previous performance is not an indicator of future success. And there can be some truth in this. Pre-hiring assessments focus on the quantity rather than quality of those experiences. They frequently measure time spent in a role rather than necessarily what was achieved and more specifically the way those goals were realised.

It might also mean someone worked for an organisation where they were not allowed to develop, grow or contribute in their own style. These are all points which should be cross referenced. For jobs which rely mainly on hard skills this will be less significant than for roles where soft skills are more important.


There are some key steps:

  • The candidate should be informed in advanced that contact will be made with a referee which is now generally by telephone.
  • They should not be contacted without permission.
  • References should only be pursued in the case of a pending formal offer.
  • Preparation for the call should be as strategic as the job interview itself. It is important that the reference seeker understands the key requirements and qualities needed for the position so should receive a job profile.
  • Each interview usually takes about an hour. It is probably a good idea to seek referees in possibly two previous companies, dependent on the experience level of the candidate. One excellent reference from the last employer could simply mean they want to get rid of a troublesome employee!
  • It is quite common to ask for a reference from a report, a peer and a boss to get an overall view. Sometimes a comment from one referee can be cross checked with input from another. These comments can be matched against any interview notes or psychometric testing.

Many companies will no longer give written references for fear of litigation and will only state any facts such as the candidate’s dates of employment and job title.

Fact checking

The value of references in the hiring process is also about basic due diligence. Resume / CV fraud has always been around, so before the start date, copies of any academic or professional certificates should be supplied. Scott Thompson, named Yahoo’s chief executive in 2012, famously falsified his resume and illustrates how easy it is for even senior appointments to slip through the net without thorough due diligence. Everyone thinks the previous recruiter would have done the necessary detailed work especially for senior roles.

References can also be helpful in the onboarding process. If a candidate comes with outstanding references from a number of sources and suddenly under performs in the new role, then that might suggest that some internal questions need to be asked around onboarding, reporting arrangements to facilitate early intervention to support success.

The value of references seeking in the hiring process shouldn’t be underestimated. But it quite frequently is.


Do your recruiters need training on how to obtain references? Get in touch NOW 



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