References are worthless

The most obvious way to verify if a person is suitable for your job vacancy is to speak to someone they have worked with in the past and get their opinion. Despite the blatant logic behind this approach, fewer and fewer companies are taking references for new employees, so why is that?

Don’t sue me
An increasingly large number of companies now have formal policies that forbid their employees from providing formal references for past colleagues. As a result, it’s all too common for companies to only confirm the person's role and the dates they were employed. A significant justification for this is fear of litigation. Should a company provide a reference that caused a former employee to miss out on an otherwise suitable opportunity, the company is putting itself in a position where the former employee could easily challenge their point of view. Unless the company can provide absolute definitive evidence to support a negative reference, it becomes increasingly difficult to form a suitable legal defence.

It’s nice to be nice
Has your prospective employee provided you with a number of people willing to provide a reference? Great. That information is worthless. No-one in their right mind would ever provide details of a reference unless they were absolutely certain the person was going to gush about their abilities and personality.

Even if you’ve managed to contact someone that hasn’t been provided by your prospective employee, people by default want to be nice. People rarely want to feel responsible for someone else not securing work and most folk tend to choose their words carefully in fear that the prospective employee might somehow find out what was discussed during the conversation.

Back-channels are dangerous
There are two key objectives when taking a reference:

  1. Verifying information provided by the applicant.
  2. Qualifying potential concerns or weaknesses identified by your team during the interview process.

The former is quite straightforward and can typically be handled with obvious, direct questions. Better yet, there are countless tools that can automate this process for you.

As for the latter, welcome to the minefield.
An increasingly common solution is to ‘back-channel’ references. To put it simply, back-channelling references means to privately reach out to people you know, who have loose connections to your applicant, or crowdsourcing opinions within private mailing lists or slack groups to see if anyone has dealt with your applicant in the past.

I was once a member of a large slack group that primarily consisted of internal recruiters and HR professionals. It was an extremely common occurrence for someone to mention a candidates name, asking if anyone had any insights on the person in question. Often a few people would chime in with less than desirable feedback.

But if a few people had a bad experience, maybe that candidate is worth avoiding?

Maybe you’re right. Or, maybe a select few people provided negative feedback with little to no context, without the candidate being present to defend themselves, to an audience of a few thousand people, a large percentage of which will now have a default negative opinion on said candidate, therefore drastically impacting that person’s career prospects. If you currently adhere to this practice, or a similar practice, I implore you to stop immediately.

Take every single bit of feedback with a grain of salt. Humans are inherently flawed. The risks involved in giving applicants the benefit of the doubt are vastly less harmful than the risks of actively harming a person’s career on the basis on one or two subjective opinions.

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