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Recently a friend of mine was asking me about a reference he needed to give a former employee of his. My friend liked this former employee but was frustrated with the hoops he had to go through in order to help out his former employee. His HR department was concerned about potential liability and cautioned my friend in providing a sanitized version of the reference he wanted to give.

This exchange started to make me think. In this day and age, why do we bother with references. Are they any real value?

The first problem with references is the job candidate cherry picks who he wants to provide as a reference. In most cases, he will dig up only people who will give him a positive reference even if he has to go all the way back to his high school summer job.

The next issue is that in our day and age, you have a false positive tendency. Other than a few people I know, most people want to provide positive references to their former employees. If they do not like a candidate, they will tend to invoke the principle that they can only confirm the date of hire and termination.

Thirdly, will the substance of a reference from a person you do not know provide any real insight in how the candidate will perform at the job you are interviewing for? In most cases no. You can find out if the candidate was untrustworthy which will only come up in a rare instance. Also, the basic premise of a reference is that you will trust a stranger on a twenty minute conversation more than you will trust yourself and your team who have spoken with the candidate for hours. Does this make sense?

From what I understand, references are less than 20% effective in predicting whether a candidate will be a good employee at his job. So why do close to half of all companies still go through the reference process?

My best guess is that recruiting sometimes gets stuck with we have been doing this for years so why change it?

David Brensilber
President – Fire Brick Group