Are Reference Checks Really Necessary?
Updated: Feb 26
Have you ever looked at a co-worker and wondered how they got hired? As a job seeker, have you ever bristled at the idea of conjuring up three to four people to list as references, especially if you have been unemployed for a while?
As a hiring manager, have you ever been so anxious to fill a position that you glossed over reference checks? In our detached digital age, forming connections with actual people—in real life—that can vouch for you outside of the workplace is increasingly more difficult than in times past.
What about home-based telecommuters or techies working in a collaborative, virtual office space? These work situations do not foster human interactions in a physical environment, so how can you really get to know someone well enough to speak to their character or personality without looking into their eyes and holding a real conversation?
Since reference and background checks do not adequately predict a candidate’s conduct in the workplace, why keep subjecting job-seekers to this irrelevant tradition?
Bad Reference, Good Employee
What happens when a supervisor does not want to lose an employee, and fabricates a bad reference to kill the employee’s chances for advancement at another company? This catastrophe almost befell my mother as a young, newly certified business education teacher in the early 70s. After graduating college, my mother worked at the downtown post office for a short time. While working there, she applied for a job with the state department of education. She decided against full-time classroom teaching, but still wanted to remain in the field.
Luckily, she landed the new job with the state. After a few months on the job, her new supervisor confessed that he almost passed on hiring her, because her old manager had given such a bad reference. However, he overrode the incongruence between the personable young woman he met in the interview--and the bad report about her work performance--to hire her anyway.
My mother, Mr. Hanner and his wife, a school librarian, became fast friends. He proudly displayed pictures of my sister and me in his office, and even in his wallet. He loved telling us the story of how one friend spied the picture, and asked where he had gotten black grandchildren. Every Christmas, our family looked forward to Mrs. Hanner’s homemade fudge, pecan rolls and strawberry candy.
When she got too sick to make our treats, Christmas was never the same. My mother just retired in 2014. Mr. and Mrs. Hanner just passed away in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Look at all the years of fellowship our families would have missed if Mr. Hanner had believed the lies told about my mother during a routine reference check.
May We Contact Your Current Employer?
Nowadays, we have the option to bypass our current employers for references. Most employment applications include a check box next to that very loaded question, “May We Contact Your Current Employer?” What happens when you check “no”? Does your recruiter’s enthusiasm suddenly wane? Are you questioned about your negative response? Do you feel as if you are hiding something? Are you certain that your request for no contact will truly be honored? Things at your current job might get very difficult if your search is discovered, and could result in you getting fired. So, of course it makes sense to check “no,” and to avoid listing contact information for your current job on your resume.
Since civil rights and human resource laws constrain potential employers on the types of questions they can ask about you, why bother? How can people’s opinions of you determine your ability to effectively perform your job duties? Since workplace interactions are often superficial, what exactly can be surmised about you through a series of equally superficial, open-ended questions? Will those responses truthfully reflect your character, personality and work performance? Most serial killers held a job at some point in their lives. How did they pass a reference check?
Taking a Gamble
As with online dating and marriage, you just never truly know people, until you actually meet them or move into a home together, no matter how their friends or family rave about them.
Likewise, particular aspects of your personality only surface under certain conditions. Perhaps you did not know that wet towels on the bathroom floor drive you crazy before someone threw one down.
The same is true with hiring new employees. You take a risk whether you check references or not. Good or bad reviews based on past interactions cannot honestly predict current behavior, because people are dynamic and unpredictable creatures. Unfortunately, reference checks will not rule out the insane or the murderous, and could actually work against a good, solid job candidate.
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Ashan R. Hampton is a long-time English instructor turned entrepreneur. She is also a proud graduate of the Donaghey Scholars Program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock under the direction of Dr. C. Earl Ramsey, Emeritus. Through her company, Onyx Online Education & Training, she offers online writing courses and print books for academic and professional development to individuals and corporations. She is also a prolific published author of several books on a variety of topics. To find out more about Ashan's work, visit www.arhampton.com.
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