How Important are Reference Checks? They Knock out 20% of Job Candidates

Just how important are reference checks, anyway? Well, would you believe that one in five job candidates get knocked out of consideration during this part of the hiring process?

You know this if you do much hands-on hiring, but references checks have increased in importance over the last 10 years. Once seen as a simple formality that you do right before extending a job offer, background and reference checks have taken on a much larger role as organizations spend more time and effort on making sure they get the right talent into their workforce. Add in some high profiles stories about executives who lied about degrees or fabricated credentials on their resume , and you can see why checking references has become a critical part of the hiring routine.

A new survey released this week by Office Team , a staffing service that specializes in placing skilled administrative professional, drives that point home in a big way. It found that managers say they remove 21 percent of job candidates from consideration after speaking to their professional contacts.

“When hiring managers narrow the field to a few potential candidates, the reference check often becomes the deciding factor,” said OfficeTeam executive director Robert Hosking in a press release accompanying the survey results. “To distinguish themselves from the competition, job seekers should assemble a solid list of contacts who can persuasively communicate their qualifications and professional attributes.”

So, just what do hiring managers hope to get out of the reference check process? The Office Team survey of more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with more than 20 employees found that more than a third (36 percent) said they are most interested in getting input on an applicant’s past job duties and experience. Learning about an individual’s strengths and weaknesses came in second, with 31 percent of the response with 11 percent looking for a confirmation of past job titles and employment dates.

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The big surprise for me was this: only 8 percent of senior hiring managers said that they were looking for a description of the job candidate’s workplace accomplishments when they talked to references. In my mind, this is equally important as learning about a job candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, because what someone accomplished for a previous employer is a pretty good predictor of what they might be able to accomplish if they come to work for you. I’m surprised that more managers don’t want to know this.

I can remember a time when references were just a formality on the road to hiring someone. simply the last box to mark on the hiring checklist. That’s not true anymore, and if anything, that should be the REAL message that comes out of this Office Team survey.

Job candidates would be wise to keep this in mind when they offer up references for a prospective employers, and hiring managers need to remember that checking references is a great opportunity to really get a handle on the job candidate – and maybe, decide why they aren’t right for you and your organization.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.