The Power of Reference Checks

  By Chris Heinz  |    Wednesday April 28, 2021

Category: Productivity, Technology

I love technology.  I love everything about it...well, almost everything about it.

One of the technological advancements that I don’t love is the automation of reference checks.

Just this week, I spoke with 2 hiring managers who let me know that they are now using an automated process to check the references.  While I can understand the value they perceive they are getting and they’ve been sold…send a link to the reference’s cell or email allows them to complete it on their own time rather than being “forced” to talk to someone; Answering questions from the link to discuss their strengths and weaknesses is less evasive than talking to someone; return rate is better than phone-based references.  Don’t these all sound wonderful?

They don’t do what we do in the recruitment/talent access space.  A link does not allow you to hear their enthusiasm (or lack of).  A link doesn’t allow you to ask relevant follow-up questions.  A link doesn’t give an opportunity to initiate a relationship.=

Over the course of my 23+ years in recruiting, there have been far too many recruiters that believe reference checks only needs to be done “if-and-only-if” the company requests it.  Sure, they sell is as part of the process and say their candidates have been vetted and validated.  But, they don’t want the nuisance of actually having to do them.  

I know that isn’t ANY of you reading this right now...right?

Let’s discuss the value of a human-based (that’s you!) Reference Check:

  • You actually get to validate your candidate is as good as they say they are
  • You can learn through your questioning that your candidate is even better than they say they were
  • If there are discrepancies in their dates, responsibilities, or known issues, you know before an offer is given. Like it or not, the candidates you represent are representative of you.
  • You are able to talk to high-level decision-makers
  • It’s worth repeating again...You are able to talk to high-level decision-makers
  • You are able to show your professionalism to your client with a well-prepared reference summary


Candidates can say anything they’d like about their responsibilities, achievements, and how much they are loved at their current and past companies.  While there are systems like ‘The Work Number’ to verify dates of employment and title, that only checks one tiny element of their work history.  If we were only valued solely based on our dates of employment and title, there truly would no longer be a need for recruiters. We bring professionals to life when we learn about their achievements, success, areas of growth, reasons for leaving, etc. Those stories are only strengthened when we have validation to back them up.  A third-party quote about your candidate’s achievements are MUCH stronger than your words.  This is exactly what a reference can provide.  While I’m sure you can put together a masterful line describing the achievement, a powerful quote from a previous manager will run circles around your wordsmithing.

Validation also means not being blind to issues that come up.  If you learn that something is off from what you understand, such as dates, responsibilities, achievements, or dependability you don’t need to throw the candidate away or remove them from process.  Not every reference is a good one.  Not every person giving a reference was happy that person left them.  Is there anger or disappointment from the reference and they are using their answers as a way to sabotage or make you question their viability?

What should you do if you get a negative reference?  Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do:  don’t call your candidate and tell them “you won’t believe what Billybob just said about you!” Resist the temptation!  My recommendation is to let the candidate know that you’re working on the references and ‘oh by the way’ do you have an additional reference from xyz company in case you can’t get a hold of Billybob.  If that reference also confirms the issue that Billybob stated, now is the time to believe it.  

* A recommendation I learned a long time ago from someone much wiser than me is:  Always follow up a negative reference with an additional reference! *

Live Conversations are the biggest gain!

If you’ve gotten this far in this article then you surely read the two bullets above of having a live conversation with high-level decision-makers. Do you realize how powerful that can be?  How many marketing calls have you made to some of these decision-makers?  How many emails or Inmail messages have you sent? Much of that effort results in limited return communication. call to conduct a professional reference on some that worked with/for them that they is amazing how consistently you receive those return calls.  

After you have completed the reference (and probably during) you have the opportunity to ask additional questions about them, about their company, the challenges they are experiencing.  You have just shown them the type of professional you are and the type of value-created service you provide to your clients by checking the reference.  In all likelihood, you now have their cell.  A recruiter with solid ability has the opportunity to: develop a relationship, learn about potential openings, ask for referrals for other searches, pick their brain and gain industry insight, get your next great candidate. You know...all the things a great recruiter does when they can have a live conversation!

One final point:  Make sure to send a reference consent form to your candidate.  You don’t need it signed, you just need it sent. This covers you legally. If you don’t have one, message me on LinkedIn and I’ll be happy to share!

In case you need some self-talk lines:

References are not a pain…

References are not a nuisance…

References shouldn’t be handed off to someone else…

References don’t just validate dates of employment and titles…

Reference checking could open the lock to a new key account…


If corporate HR wants to use a technical source to check references, let them.  But, we the mighty professional recruitment force should not!   There is just too much value that can come from doing a reference.  Make a commitment to yourself today to ask for them from EVERY candidate you recruit.

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