Are references worth it?


Barnaby Parker References, Blog, uk...

These days it can feel like job references are barely worth the paper they are written on.

More often than not we have a brilliant candidate who is perfect for a job, but the references reflect nothing of this.

Part of the problem lies in the increasing litigation surrounding bad references. Companies who have had experience of this have tightened up internal policy. Often references must be given by HR, from someone who doesn’t really know the candidate or how they’ve performed, and you end up getting a single sheet with a start and finish date, a job title, and sick absence but little else.

This sort of reference tells you absolutely nothing about the candidate – what they’ve achieved, or what they’re like to work with. 

Equally, references are sometimes a way to offload someone who is not that good at their job. Bland platitudes can do a lot to conceal poor performance. After all, which manager wouldn’t jump at the chance to move an underperformer out of the team?

So do references really matter anymore?

The answer is yes, unless you think you can find out everything you need to know about a candidate in a one hour interview?

Clearly references alone are no longer a reason to give someone a job. Gone are the days when because your uncle and grandfather worked at the bank, you’d get a job there too. Name dropping and nepotism are definitely not what references are about.

They should provide a much longer-term appraisal of a candidate’s performance. They’re a good way to sense-check if someone has actually delivered what they said they did at interview. This insight can be a deciding factor if interviews result in a candidate head to head.

We’re often asked by internal recruiters for our opinion on a potential head to be hunted. We make it a point to know all the talent in the markets we recruit in, whether they’re on our books or not. Where people move, inside feedback on how they are doing in a new role, what their bosses and what their teams think of them, and most importantly, what they’ve delivered.

Someone might be amazingly talented and doing a top job in one role, but be totally unsuited to another. How someone likes to work, their style and experience can make them a perfect or a terrible fit for a company – which means we make a point of knowing about the company they work for too.

As much as we’re called by internal recruiters and CEOs for an inside track on potential talent, candidates also expect us to give them a candid view on a potential employer. After all no one wants to move jobs only to find they don’t fit with the company culture and strategy.

Our advice to all those hiring when it comes to the challenge of getting a proper reference is to be clear about the areas you really need to know about. Maybe suggest that a reference is not just provided just by the direct manager but also by peers or board members. Ask for strengths and weaknesses or even a synopsis of the last performance appraisal.

Don’t be afraid to get feedback that contradicts an interview. Better to ask the candidate about this before you make an offer.

If companies remain tight lipped (because it’s company policy) consider informal references – through the grapevine with key networks, institutes or associations.

Google someone – you can learn a lot from social media accounts both professional like LinkedIn and personal like Facebook. They give you a good sense of a person’s ‘brand’ and how they conduct themselves as well as a second opinion on their CV and any online referrals you might want to follow up.

Are references worth it? They sure are. Unless you feel you can trust to an interview and assessment alone. They are the third and more long-term review and an essential part of recruitment.

After all a bad hire is pretty hard to undo. 


Venquis are experts in placing highly skilled change and business transformation professionals in permanent, interim and contract roles. If you would like advice on the current market or helping you take the next step in your career please get in touch and upload your CV!