Are reference checks a waste of time?

Are reference checks an unnecessary confirmation of what you already know, or does it have some value? We have the answer!

reference-check reference-schema

The information you get from the reference should give you a valuable new perspective to assess the candidate beyond what you have in the role of recruiter. But does it actually do that? Let’s take a look at who does and doesn't value this infamous part of the recruitment process.

First, what is a reference check 

Simply explained, it is a conversation with former managers, supervisors or colleagues of candidates you consider relevant for a position you are filling. Here you talk to the reference about his impressions and experiences after a previous working relationship with the candidate. A reference is provided by the candidate, and must not be contacted unless one a) har  have a concrete job opportunity (hello, recruitment agencies!) b) has had at least one conversation with the candidate c) has notified the candidate in advance.

Situations where references have zero value

If you carry out this step purely as a formality that only helps to confirm an impression you have already gained through interviews and technical tests, then it is a time-consuming and completely unnecessary part of the recruitment process. This applies both for your own part, but also out of consideration for the reference person's time and energy.

Typical warning signs are 

  1. You have standardized schema with questions for most roles
  2. You only ask yes/no questions
  3. You ask leading questions
  4. You doubt the reference person if their descriptions deviate from your own impression
  5. Your motivation for carrying out a reference check is to save your own skin if this turns out to be a failed employment

In such cases the reference check should be dropped as a basis for decision; rather, rely on your own impression and gut feeling to choose who fits best into the role and the team.

A gold mine of value

For companies that do the reference check correctly, there is a gold mine of information - also far beyond their contribution to a decision about employment. A well-planned conversation and specific objectives can reveal weaknesses you were not aware of and make you wiser about the insecurities you already had. But you can also obtain new information on how to lead and motivate the candidate in the best possible way. This information is of great help when optimizing both offers, training and production, and gives you a much better starting point for a mutually good working relationship.

A conversation with the candidate's references can give you:

  1. confirmation of information provided in the CV and interview
  2. more information about the candidate's strengths and weaknesses from someone who has actually observed the candidate at work
  3. thoughts about the candidate from a third party
  4. insight into how to motivate the candidate
  5. insight into how the candidate learns best

Set aside time to extract value

Conversations with the candidate's references rarely last long enough for you to talk about everything between heaven and earth, which means you should plan the conversation so that the reference has time to be more than just polite and can go into depth on the information you want. Feel free to communicate with the reference in advance so that you can find a time when the conversation will not be interrupted. In this way, the reference also has enough time to reflect before you carry out the conversation.

Set goals for what value you want to gain

Set goals for the conversation and plan the conversation accordingly: Do you, for example, want to use the reference check to obtain a broader and more complete picture of the candidate's skills? Do you want to use the reference check to clear up uncertainties from previous employment relationships? Would you like to use the reference check to learn more about how you can make the candidate's training period good and fast? Here you can have multiple goals, but you may want to be conscious of how you will prioritize them in case you run out of your reference's time (or patience).

Good planning in advance gives you good results afterwards. Do you want help with recruiting programmers and designers? Start a free trial here at



The Wide Assessment team has created the recruitment platform to help companies grow better with efficient tools for assessing and accessing talents, while also making sure the candidates get more opportunities with less annoying steps along the way.

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