CHECKING the references of prospective employees was for years an indispensable practice for organisations, delivering a perceived robustness to the hiring process.

So why are many organisations now choosing to downplay the importance of the reference check?

The fact is, weighting the importance of reference checks too highly can distort the selection process. While a reference checking process is vulnerable to attracting a bias direction during the process, it actually starts with bias, simply because candidates for positions usually nominate their referees.

Job candidates will rarely nominate referees who they believe will deliver anything but a glowing reference. It is the reason written references accompanying work resumes fell by the wayside years ago.

But wait, there’s more.

In today’s litigious world, most employers take the task of providing references very seriously.

An inaccurate reference or misinformation about a candidate can result in a costly hiring mistake and expose the referee to legal action.

Similarly, an employer who provides a derogatory reference to seriously harm an individual’s job prospect can also expose themselves to legal action.

Both circumstances can lead to those being asked to provide references to take a very cautious path and adopt a “less is better” approach.

A closer view of the employment reference check reveals yet another flaw. Imagine an underperforming employee in your organisation who has been short-listed for an interview for a position with another company.

As the employee’s line manager, you see this as a great opportunity to move the underperformer on.

You are asked to provide a reference and, to help talk up the employee’s prospects and increase the chances they leave your orbit of influence and responsibility, you overstate their capabilities. Sounds unethical but, yes, it happens.

Delving further, another source of bias is revealed.

When an employee leaves an organisation for another, it is quite often the case that the employee will end up working for a competitor. Reference checking can be fraught with bias in this situation as an organisation works to retain a valued employee by providing a less than glowing reference.

And in some cases, a competing organisation might not even be prepared to provide a reference.

Finally, when a referee provides information about a candidate, they usually comment on the candidate’s operating history in a unique context: a specific organisation, department or job role. No two organisations are the same, so without substantial knowledge about the organisation the candidate is seeking to enter, referees are unable to provide insight into how they will operate in a different context.

Referees focus on past performance, not on the future.

The canny employers will recognise that reference checking might have a place in the modern recruitment process, but it is not the be-all, end-all it once was.