Why reference checks are worthless when it comes to truly understanding your new employee

With low unemployment levels and skill shortages in so many sectors, it’s a challenging time for recruitment. This is made even more challenging because so many employers continue to use almost worthless tools, like reference checks, in the recruitment process. Let’s be honest, we know that candidates won’t give us references to people who will speak badly of them. Bias is always a challenge with recruitment, and with reference checks the bias is baked into their very core.

So, while “worthless” may seem shocking to say, there’s a reason we need to say it this strongly. The data backs the idea that reference checks are outdated and ineffective.

Source: https://www.randstad.com.au/hr-news/recruitment-process/what-a-reference-check-why-are-they-important/#:~:text=Studies%20show%20that%20about%2095,candidate%20the%20first%20time%20around.

Source: https://www.hrmonline.com.au/section/featured/reference-checks-arent-helpful-really/

As many as 95 per cent of employers continue to use reference checking as part of the hiring process. This is despite the flaws in reference checking being well known for years – back in 2017 a survey reported that 39 per cent of recruitment managers believe that reference checking served little purpose, and 17 per cent said that it was the most frustrating element of the hiring process. As far back as 2010 – ancient by the Internet’s standards – Dr. John Sullivan, a talent management specialist that has published over ten books on the subject, was writing articles about the deep flaws in reference checking.

The question, then, is why do they persist? If reference checks are disliked among HR professionals and demonstrably ineffective, why are they still part of 95 per cent of hiring processes? 

Why companies reference check

There are two primary goals of a reference check. Firstly, a recruiter will use them to verify the accuracy of what is written on a job applicant’s resume, and that the applicant had the responsibilities and did the tasks they claim they did. 

This is the useful side of the reference check, as it does allow an organisation to address the risk of fraud in recruitment, and thus maintain good governance practices.

However, reference checks are also used for a second reason, and this is where they fail the recruiter. They’re used in an attempt to better understand the candidate and hear first-hand accounts of their work ethic, reliability and professionalism. Very often, during the recruitment process, a manager will finish an interview and think to themselves “I just don’t know.” In those cases, the recruiter will turn to a reference check in an effort to confirm or contrast with the way that the candidate presented themselves in the interview.

Essentially, humans have an in-built bias that’s sub-conscious and almost impossible to remove. In recognising this, a good recruiter will look to supplement their own perspective with other sources of information on the candidate.

The problem is that that reference checks are themselves laden with bias, and therefore fail to meet that objective. What the recruiter actually needs is a way of scientifically assessing a candidate instead. They need structure and data, not opinions. 

Or to put that another way, they need a tool that allows them to conduct a genuine assessment. Assessment is more effective at analysis than interview, because it is structured and data driven, so wouldn’t that be a more effective way of supplementing the recruiter’s analysis than another layer of bias?

That’s what AbilityMap does

Apprento – a sales acceleration platform that specialised in switching on sales potential, turned to AbilityMap to address one of the biggest challenges that the sales industry faces – a lot of people in sales don’t really want to be there. With nearly 3/4s of sales professionals “falling into” their careers, and one third of sales people failing to hit their targets, recruiting a lasting and effective sales person is a true headache for recruiters. 

It’s also one where the latent bias in reference checks can be difficult to overcome, as no sales person is going to list a reference that will acknowledge that they are unenthusiastic or struggles in the role… and yet the salesperson’s skillset is specifically tailored towards presenting themselves well in interviews. 

AbilityMap’s capacity to gauge, vet and identify high-impact development needs for recruits with potential has proved invaluable to Apprento’s ability to overcome this challenge.  [Read more about what AbilityMap brought to Apprento’s recruitment processes here.]

The holy grail: Introducing objectivity into recruitment

Recruiters do need to assess a candidate’s capabilities, of course. Considering the limitations of reference checks, though, it would be better to direct the energy and resources towards more effective tools.  

Being able to effectively map skills and human capabilities across a wide range of categories, using data-driven metrics, is far more effective than relying on subjective input. Looking at what a candidate has actually produced, in terms of their portfolio, or setting them a sample task will, likewise, be more effective than relying on a third party’s assessment of a candidate’s work quality.

Finally, behavioural interviews and psychometric assessments can provide a more holistic evaluation of a candidate’s personality traits, work style, and potential for success within the organisation. All of these points of analysis, fed back through AbilityMap, will give recruiters a comprehensive understanding of the applicant’s ability to deliver what they claim they are capable of, and whether they will fit into the team.

We would never advocate getting rid of the critical governance aspect provided by a reference check. Beyond that one specific application, however, it’s difficult to shake the sense that reference checks intended to deliver a fuller picture of a candidate are done out of tradition, and few people believe they add much to the hiring process. 

Now with the right modern, data-driven and objective approach, recruiters can finally do away with their reliance on reference checks as a way of understanding the capabilities and cultural fit of candidates.

Read more about how AbilityMap is integrated into Apprento’s recruitment processes here.

Interested in learning more about assessment and psychometric testing? With a half-hour demonstration, we can show you the value of AbilityMap and the ROI it will bring to your organisation. Click here to book that demo.

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