Know What References are Good For

Stop asking for references,” is the title and bottom line of Al Pittampalli’s article on the common practice.

Why stop? According to Mr. Pittampalli, because they are a flawed instrument likely to give you little reliable information and false confidence.

The flaws he points out are true: references are nothing like a scientific survey; checking references is so late in the process that you’re bound to be emotionally committed to hiring already — which shuts down critical thinking.

When Mr. Pittampalli gave an honest, negative review of a former coworker they ended up getting the job anyway. His story is easy to relate to. That manager clearly blew it.

Taking a different approach, if you change your goal from “fill this opening” to “avoid a bad hire” – as ManagerTools encourages us to – then you are less likely to fall prey to the confirmation bias when checking references.

Mr. Pittampalli points out how ineffective reference checking was for the caller in his story. He is absolutely correct. I suggest that the problem is deeper than reference checking itself.

The fundamental issue is championed by Mark Horstman and company at Manager Tools: vetting a candidate is designed to say, “no.” Get that right, and references can be useful — not perfect, but useful.

At worst, checking references wastes time and builds false confidence. If there is a chance you can do it properly and avoid a bad hire, then I say do it.

More from Al Pittampalli:

More from Mark Horstman:

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Tyler Peterson

Tyler Peterson

Web Dev surviving a management job in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.