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References are completely pointless

Written by Liam Wilson
20/12/18 - 15:37

Pretty big claim I know, so hear me out …

Picture the scene, you need to grow your team but finding the right people in the current climate is very difficult, not only is it a sellers’ market (i.e. tech professionals know they are in high demand), coupled with all of your competition looking for similar people – resulting in bidding wars, add in the volatile political situation there has never been a harder time to recruit staff! So why make it harder on yourself by insisting on completely meaningless references?!

Hypothetically you’ve just spent a month going through multiple interview stages, an on-site technical exercise, asked the candidate to do a presentation and he/she has met the entire team. Everything went swimmingly, this person is the perfect fit! However, before the deal can be sealed, we need two references of recent employers to confirm that you want to hire the person that smashed the telephone interview, got one with the entire team, did the best presentation you have ever seen and fits perfectly into your culture. How mental is that?!

Let’s switch quickly to a football analogy, mostly due to that being all I know anything about outside of tech recruitment. Some players don’t fit some clubs – that is fine. However, does that mean they won’t fit every other club they ever join? Absolutely not!

Be prepared for an obscure Scottish football reference …

Sir Rudolf Skacel is a Heart of Midlothian (recently voted as having 8th best crest in world football – seriously) legend. Who also happened to be bang average at every other team he played for. But for one reason or another, he clicked with Hearts and in his two spells with the club he became a bona fide cult hero winning two Scottish Cups. Now, had Hearts gone on the ‘references’ of his other clubs, either side of his time at Hearts, they might have described him as an average performer, doesn’t work hard enough and isn’t sure of his best position. Why would we take the risk on someone like that?!

Back to hiring in technology.

Yes, getting a reference is actually quite important, but only if it adds any value. For example, if you know and trust someone they have worked with/have some sort of connection to. Otherwise you are going to get two references given to you by the person - which guess what, are going to be good (and totally bias) so why bother? True story, I was once put down as a reference for my mate, because I was technically his supervisor – totally legit reference, but he is one of my best mates, of course the reference will be amazing! Or you might get the classic HR reference, which simply states they worked in a certain company between certain dates – in other words, pointless, unless they’ve completely lied about their entire work history.

Maybe you know all of this, so you phone a company they used to work for and someone tells you that person was awful, didn’t fit in and they’d never hire them again in a month of Sundays. Do you take one person’s opinion on someone over everything else you have done to this point? What if that person is doesn’t know their arse from their elbow? Or they didn’t know how to manage the person in question? Or the technology was old and outdated in that place of work, your new employee tried to bring them into the 21st century and was shut down by bureaucracy? None of that is going to come out in a reference.

What I’m trying to get at in this weird & wonderful rant – trust your gut. It is so difficult to hire people, even more difficult to hire people you like, fit in and have the right technical background (which hopefully after an interview you at least have an inclination of), so why ruin it all on the opinion of in most cases, a complete stranger?!


Liam Wilson

Principal Consultant | Data Analytics & Senior Appointments