Employer Insights

6 Reasons Job References are Rubbish

Lisa Johnson Posted by Lisa
min read
Brooke Cagle Uduc5h Jx2 Ew Unsplash

References are rubbish.   Myer gets to beat up Quest Recruitment because the references they provided for Andrew Flanagan were clearly (in hindsight) false.  But it's completely disingenuous to blame a recruitment business for misleading references, unless they have deliberately fabricated them.  I don't believe anyone has said that Quest made them up, only that they were false. Here is what annoys the (insert your favourite term here) out of me about the Andrew Flanagan debacle and Quest taking a beating over references: the consultants at Quest are not to blame here.  

And, let's face it, if Myer says that they only hired Mr Flanagan based on the references, they are making stuff up – he would have gone through two or more interviews and talked the talk with any number of senior executives to secure that role.  

They made the choice to hire him because they believed the lies he told them; they were sold on him.  The references were just a tick in the recruitment process checkbox. Any experienced recruiter will tell you exactly why references are rubbish.  And there are no secrets here; the pitfalls in referencing are very well known. 

1. The rise of the no reference policy.  

More and more companies are implementing a no reference policy.  They may confirm dates of employment and a job title, but that is pretty much it.  There are managers who have been willing to give 'personal' references, which pretty much cover what an employment reference covers, but, if they are still employed by the employer, legally there are still liabilities for the employer if misleading information is given. 

2. The requirement to make the reference available to the employee if requested.  

Referees can find themselves between a rock and a hard place because anything they say can be shown to the candidate, so they often say very little at all and don't like to elaborate if their answers are a bit vague.  I know some people try the 'This reference will be confidential’ line, but it doesn't hold up too well in court. 

3. Subjective questions and not following through.  It's easy to ask questions but harder to listen and know when to probe and to try to get more information from the referee.  Often your attempts are stymied by the referee clamming up in fear of saying something that could be used against him/her at a later date. 

4. The referee who lets the power go to their head and either shares gossip or makes innuendos that could end badly for them if these comments result in the candidate not getting a new job.  Referees are required to ensure that their statements are factual and true. 

5. Candidates lie.  Candidate A has been let go from a job and knows that she needs to cover this up or she will struggle to find another job.  She doesn't want to omit the employer completely from her resume, so she gets a friend to pretend to be her boss and gives the recruiter/employer a mobile number to call the referee.  The smart ones will even give a landline to alleviate any suspicion of the legitimacy of the referee.  I would like to say that a smart recruiter or HR consultant would smell a rat, but clearly even the best will miss this set up on occasion. 

6. Recruiters don’t provide a verbatim transcript of the reference.*  

I know that very few references are fabricated in our industry, but it has been known to happen.  It might be the small fact of wording what a referee did say in a positive way to try and draw attention away from the 'faint praise' or a negative comment.  

Or it could be that under pressure, a consultant with questionable standards decided to make the whole thing up to get a placement across the line.  This is not urban legend; it has happened, and every time a recruiter gets caught in the lie, the reputation of us all is tarnished. It astounds me that so much weight is given to references when they are so replete with problems.  

And it annoys me when references get the blame for a bad hiring decision or, worse, stop a good hiring decision because the referee is clearly not on top of their game.  

The recruitment process is far more complicated than that one step.  

And, despite what you may hear, there are no really accurate predictors for future performance. Psych testing may give an insight into a person's natural strengths and weaknesses, but I can’t tell you how many people, who, based on a psych report, should never have succeed in the recruitment industry but do.  Interviews are fraught with prejudices, stupid questions and inexperienced interviewers.  And references can be a work of fiction in more ways than one. Let's be honest.  When you make a decision to employ, you are chancing it.  

They might work out.  They might not.  It doesn't matter what questions you asked them, what references you obtained and what tests you used – you are taking a good old fashioned punt on it all working out the right way.  Let's stop pretending there is a winning strategy or science in making a hiring decision.  

You will hire someone you like and who you think can do the job, and then you will hope for the best.

*please note, people2people DO provide verbatim references because we record them.  This allows the potential employer to hear every pause and stumble that a referee says.  As a result, our consultants have become better at taking references and probing ridiculous statements. Unfortunately, we can't stop people being inappropriate.  That is beyond us.