Job References Are Pointless

If we cared about talent in our organizations, we'd recruit differently. If we cared about talent, we'd scrap the early-twentieth-century recruiting process we follow in nearly every organization.
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My husband and I met at work, in 1984. We didn't start dating until 1986, but we know tons of people in common from the job where we met, a million years ago.

The other day, I was on LinkedIn and my husband was nearby. "Hey, look up that one guy - John, remember him?" "Which John?" I asked him. "Funny John, John from the warehouse?"

"No, I mean the guy with the tootsie in the distribution center, the crazy guy who used to hit on all the girls in Customer Service," he said. "Oh! The creeper!" I said. "I forgot about that guy. Let me look him up."

It only takes a second on LinkedIn to look up a guy, if you know where he worked before. I found the guy quickly. "He's an SVP at a consumer-products firm," I said. Looking up the hit-on-the-girls-guy made me curious, so I stayed on LinkedIn and looked up another six people from my past:

  • a guy who sexually harassed my administrative assistant and got fired for it (I know, because I fired the guy)
  • a guy who used our company credit cards to steal $30,000 worth of goodies for himself
  • a guy we fired for establishing a fake company on paper and billing our company $45,000 for nothing
  • another guy who had his hand in the till, this time through fake product returns, and
  • a woman who was fired for inventing her BA and MBA (cheeky!) from whole cloth, and trying to pass off fake transcripts and a fake diploma as real

When you've been an HR person forever, you run into stories like these. LinkedIn being as huge and all-knowing as it is, I located all six of these folks within fifteen minutes, and every one of them has a responsible job at a Manager, Director or VP level -- not including the SVP with a thing for the young ladies.

Every one of these people can talk and comport himself (or herself) well. I interviewed most of them, and even hired one of them (the sexual harassment guy, a peach). They have the gift of blarney, and the quality of lying through their teeth like butter wouldn't melt, that makes people like them so successful when no one is paying attention to the important questions: do we trust this person? Do we feel comfortable around him or her? Does this person show up as a real human being, or as a nicely-tailored suit with a bunch of credentials?

How are these folks all employed in responsible positions with major firms? It's easy to see how that would happen. We cling to a ridiculous, antiquated reference-checking paradigm that makes no sense whatsoever in 2013.

Everyone has friends and well-wishers, even punks and pondscum. Some of the creeps on my list have long lists of glowing LinkedIn recommendations, no doubt from other people you'd immediately want to take a shower after having met. Even as a white-hat HR VP, I wouldn't tell a prospective employer "We fired that guy because he sexually harrassed my twenty-year-old assistant, and then lied point-blank about even knowing her."

The company's lawyers would never go for that, and why should I take the personal risk of defaming a guy, no matter how slimy he is?

The reference-checking system, like most of the systems we use in corporate America (and institutional America, and startup America) is broken to the point where it's pointless to check references at all. Who's going to give a prospective employer references who'd say bad things about him? We give employers our shiniest and best reference-providers. When it comes to the 'official' part of the process, the background check, we can learn that so-and-so worked at Companies X, Y and Z on the dates specified. That's awesome. We can never learn what happened behind those walls. That's the only part that matters, and the unhealthy people on my list could easily tell a hiring manager a story s/he'd swallow with no trouble. Obviously, each of them did just that.

We compound the problem by having a junior HR person call reference-givers (or worse - send them a piece of paper to fill out). I've tried to give wonderful ex-colleagues of mine substantial, meaty references, only to have the amoeba clerk on the end of the line tell me "I don't want the stories, thanks. Just tell me: as Director of Talent, was Marcia punctual?"

If we cared about talent in our organizations, we'd recruit differently. If we cared about talent, we'd scrap the early-twentieth-century recruiting process we follow in nearly every organization. We'd get away from the point-factor algorithmic nonsense and talent-repelling Black Hole systems we use now, and cultivate networks that would supply all of our hiring needs. Some eyes-open employers are doing it now.

I cringe to think about the sociopaths I've worked with, not to mention criminals and garden-variety creeps, who are working and managing people in major corporations right now. Two hundred years ago, we wouldn't have been taken in by fast-talking, soulless scumbags on a job search, because we'd have met them through people we already knew and trusted. Now that we've shifted our faith away from people and over to machines and equations -- shifted so completely that we believe certain words on a resume or certain initials after a person's name have totemic power we couldn't find among normal citizens we interact with every day -- we are victims of machine thinking. We deserve the criminals we hire, because of our misplaced trust.

When we remember that humans power our businesses, schools and government agencies, we'll have a chance at recovering the use of the five (or six) senses that let us thrive on this planet for 100,000 years without selection protocols or skills-based assessments or any of the rest of the crap we substitute for humanity in the business world. Can we make that shift?

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