Why do Employers Ask for References?

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Photo by Van Tay Media on Unsplash

Do you ever wonder why employers ask for references, knowing full well that any references provided are going to be positive, making the entire process a waste of everyone’s time? We have all written job applications at some point, whether it be a paper application or online. Not all of them, but many applications ask for a reference. As applicants, we have to put in the names and phone numbers of a few friends, then text those friends and let them know we used them as a reference so they will then say something positive about us if that employer contacts them.

The History

In theory, it makes sense to ask for professional references. If hiring someone for a job the employer wants to get the best person possible. And by asking for references, the employer can contact the applicant’s previous peers and do an extra layer of checks on the candidate. They can ask questions like, “Is this person reliable” and “do they do a good job?” Ideally, the person they are talking to will be honest and say yes or no to these questions. The employer can vet the candidate to weed out anyone who has a reference that says something negative. The obvious flaw is the expectation of honesty by the applicant and the reference.

Why They Don’t Matter

Do you know more than two or three people who like you? Then you just passed a reference check, because all you need to do when being asked for a reference check is to give those people as a contact. Some will say they have to be with former co-workers, but they have no way of validating if the person was a co-worker or not. So, the respondent can simply say yes. “Of course, we worked together, this person was great.”

Twice in my life have I had potential employers contact references, even though more than that have asked for them. The most recent example was for the easiest job I’ve ever done — a part-time job working three days a week. It paid barely above minimum wage and more or less comprised of opening a place of business up and standing around all day keeping an eye on stuff and people. The title was supervisor, but really it was a security guard without doing any security work. I called it sitting on my ass all day should anything happen, which it never did. The place easily could have avoided the need for this role, but that was not for me to explain. For me, it was some steady income on the side that allowed me time to catch up on some reading throughout the day and do some content writing such as articles like this one.

The company asked for two references. So, I did what everyone does: I gave them the name of two friends of mine. One I worked with in the past, the other was a client at my studio who later became a friend. I didn’t even bother notifying those friends, totally expecting that this company wouldn’t bother contacting my two friends for this type of work. For corporate work, I used to send them my LinkedIn profile and would simply say contact anyone you see on there that wrote a recommendation for me. But they never did as I think corporate employers rely on professional background check services.

This particular business however contacted the two people I named, then sent them a letter asking:

The above named has applied for a position with this Company and has given your name as a referee to attest to his / her honesty, integrity and good character.

It would greatly assist us in assessing the suitability of this applicant if you would answer the questions listed below and return the form to us in the enclosed pre-paid envelope. Or if you would prefer fax us on our direct fax line on (number removed) or email (removed). Your reply, will, of course, be treated as strictly private and confidential, however it may be necessary to forward details to our Insurance Company.

Yours sincerely (name removed)

Before I continue with this article, I would like to point something out and that is they provided a fax number! Yes, a fax number. Remember fax machines? Anyway, to continue here are the specific questions they asked the person to fill out and send back in email, mail, or fax.

  1. How long have you known the above mentioned?:
  2. In what capacity?:
  3. Do you regard him/her as honest, trustworthy & reliable?:
  4. Do you know of any reason why he/she should not be employed by our Company?:
  5. №5. If not, why not ?:

One of my friends messaged me when he received this saying, “I hope you don’t mind that I included your time as a stripper in your reference.” We then continued to make fun of this company for asking for references.

Besides providing fodder for ridicule and jokes, there are other reasons businesses should not waste time asking for references.

1. People are only going to provide the names of people who will say something positive. Do business owners really think people are stupid enough to give a reference for someone who will say something negative? Maybe they do, otherwise why would companies still spend the time doing reference checks.

2. You can’t verify the people worked together for business references. “Hey, bro I just gave your name as a reference for a job. If they call, you tell them we worked together at Voltron Industries and I was great to work with.”

3. They take time to do. In my example above they contacted my references, mailed them letters with the questions on it, including a self-address envelope with a stamp to return. And on top of that, there is the labor cost of the admin or HR person who has to do the work. A lot of time and cost for nothing.

In this example, both references were friends of mine, one I had actually worked with, and the other was a client. Both are good friends of mine. They also reached out to my previous employer to verify employment. That employer didn’t respond to them until after I had been hired at the job and been working at for approximately 4 weeks. What would they have done if that employer had never replied? Fired me? “Milo, you have been doing a fantastic job, everyone loves you and your manager speaks super highly of you, but we are going to have to let you go because one of your references never responded to us. Sorry.” In case you are wondering why that previous employer didn’t respond, it was because they had been sent a letter. Not an email, not a call, a letter in the mail. The previous employer never received the letter.

Why Are References Still A Thing?

I have a few theories on why companies still ask for references, and the primary one is that they did it in the past and have not bothered to change with the times. It has always been done that way. In many aspects of hiring it isn’t a major issue for the HR department to make a few phone calls or send some emails, so since the workload isn’t that difficult to do for a reference check people are not questioning it. Even though that time cost does eventually add up.

Most anyone in the job market nowadays has a LinkedIn profile. Anyone who wants can view my LinkedIn profile and read the recommendations that people I have worked with have written about me, which is not all that different from what someone would respond with if contacted by a potential employer. And I would say it is more honest than a phone call with a random person because anyone viewing it can see what the working relationship was to verify we actually worked together. In contrast to a phone call that would be a person on the other end saying, “Yeah, I worked with Milo. He’s great.” On LinkedIn, it will usually say in what capacity we worked together and since it is written feedback will state in what way I did a good job. Any reputable person writing it will not leave feedback online where anyone can see it if not true. However, some employers are still unable to change with the times. Employers who in the past have asked for references and have yet to see how uneccessy this ask is anymore. Regardless if it is on a paper application form or the electronic version, that is simply a copy and paste of the same outdated questions.

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Photo © Milo Denison

What’s the Alternative?

Stick with employment verification instead of references. As employers, we don’t want to be hiring someone who says they worked somewhere that they didn’t. In my example, the company could not get in touch with my previous employer because they were so outdated in their processes that they were using physical mail instead of email or phone. I had to be the one to follow up with my old employer to get them to respond.

On the subject of personal references, don’t waste the time. Instead of relying on a person who you have never met to say something nice about a candidate, do a good job of interviewing that candidate. That is the purpose of the interview — to identify if that person can do the job and if that person would be a good person to work with. Even calling a former employer and asking for that person’s manager directly doesn’t always get the results you want. For one, that manager might no longer work with the company. Also, not everyone gets along with each other, so maybe this individual wasn’t an exemplary employee because their boss was not a quality manager. The only reason to call a former manager is to verify employment. When I left my employment at AT&T, it was primarily due to my inability to get along with my immediate manager. We didn’t work well together because that person, in my opinion, was not a good manager, and if asked probably would have said something negative about me. However, when I left Microsoft, I left on excellent terms with my manager, who I would expect to speak positively about me. The person I am now is not the person I was then. Doing a reference check a new employer might get one positive and one negative response. Does that make me a good employee or a bad employee now? Conducting a good interview should find that out.

As a manager and business owner myself, I have had people that worked well for me and those who did not. When it comes to the one I had to let go, (luckily I’ve only had to fire one person) does that make the person a bad employee going forward? Maybe their personality didn’t fit well in my work environment or maybe they have changed how they work with others and are different people now, in the same way I became a better employee over time. So, me saying I don’t like that person doesn’t mean that the next employer would feel the same. Employment verification should simply be, “Did the individual work there, what was the role, and for how long?” No other information on behavior should be asked or provided on a background check. Some employers do limit what they will reveal about former employees, but not all do.

The best option, if you can afford it, is to have a background check ran for the person. These are professional services that will verify employment, education, and criminal background. That will give you more information than someone on the phone saying something nice about a candidate. Look at how long they were at previous places of employment. If someone’s resume/CV has a bunch of short-term jobs listed versus longer employment dates, this can be a sign that they are less likely to work out.

As for references, don’t bother with them. If you want to check a person’s publicly available LinkedIn profile to see what has been written about the person, then do that. Of course, a person could argue that this is the same as phone reference of ‘you write me a good one and I’ll write you a good one.’ But at least it cuts out the time involved in providing names for the applicant and the time spent by the employer in calling those people or mailing letters. If the person is coming from retail or some other industry that allows online reviews, check those as well. Often when writing a Yelp or Google review people will name the person they were dealing with. If none of that is available then don’t waste the time and instead ensure you do a good interview. Hire the person on a probationary period that allows you to let them go if within the first few weeks or months if it becomes obvious they are not working out.

Now push back up the chain of authority within your company as to the needless time being wasted contacting references. Use this article as an example if you want. Just because something has been done a certain way does not mean that it needs to continue being done that way.

Milo Denison is a former office monkey, a freelance writer, and his most recent book “How to Manage Your Manager” is out now www.milodenison.com/books

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