When Job References Still Make Sense Before Hiring

Man Bui worked as an Uber driver and warehouse associate before getting his master’s degree in computer science in 2020. When it came time to apply for jobs, the only engineering experience he could point to was designing his own mobile app.

“When I filled out the applications at big tech companies, if they asked for references, I just left it blank,” says Mr. Bui, a 31-year-old in Portland, Ore. “I didn’t have any.” He still became a finalist for roles at




both of which gave him at-home coding assignments to test his skills. He eventually got an offer at Apple in March.

References have become much less important to hiring for all kinds of jobs in recent years, says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Many think that the people you list as references are already cued to say nice things about you, and there are so many other ways to get information about a candidate now.”

Personalized job references are no longer essential to understanding the qualifications of a job applicant: the internet, social media and technical interview assignments, especially in STEM fields, all do some of that work now. Some 62% of 1,686 organizations surveyed by the background check company HireRight in spring 2020 said they performed background checks on prospective hires, down from 72% in the same report in 2017.

So are references destined to go the way of the fax machine, especially as more millennials who grew up on the internet start making hiring decisions? Not quite.

Many bosses, especially at small companies, still think they’re useful, especially in the age of pandemic-influenced remote interviews. And if you happen to have a high-profile reference like a CEO or some other rock star in your field whose name you can drop in your application, it doesn’t hurt to include it in a competitive job market.

Katherine Winston, head of digital marketing at a Seattle-area real estate startup called Plunk, still considers references essential to her hiring process. She helped hire five colleagues this year, from a creative producer to an engineer, and finalists for each role had to provide three to five references. She called them all herself.

“Keep in mind, we didn’t meet many of these folks in person until we hired them. That’s why I feel like, these days especially, getting references is no longer a formality. It’s a necessity,” she says.

She tries to dive a little deeper with her questions about applicants than just inquiring about their strengths and weaknesses. She will ask references to recreate personal scenarios where they worked with the candidate, or to give specific examples of problems candidates have solved.

For Jim Thompson, co-founder of OpenBench, a biotech startup, references aren’t just about burnishing a candidate’s credentials, but a safeguard against bad hiring decisions.

Jim Thompson, a startup founder, says he finds a negative reference more useful than a positive one during the hiring process.


Jim Thompson

“Frankly, I think references serve as sort of a sanity check,” says Mr. Thompson, who lives in San Francisco. “Anything less than resounding praise, I would really see as more of a warning sign,” he says. He wouldn’t hire someone strictly off a strong reference, but a mediocre or negative reference would be a huge red flag. He tells candidates in their first interviews that they will eventually be asked to provide references if they make it past their take-home coding assignments.

A recurring point made by detractors of job references is their tendency toward uniform positivity. Reference checks still typically proceed based on contact information given by candidates themselves.

A 2019 study that surveyed 905 Americans across a variety of fields found that more than half received no questions about candidates’ weaknesses or areas for improvement. It was published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment.

“Honestly, I’ve been fired. Am I going to give you that boss as a reference? No,” says

Gurpreet Kaur Mann,

who runs an HR consulting firm in Brampton, Ontario. “No one’s going to give a bad reference.”

Ms. Mann phased out job references in her HR work back in 2008. Today, she works with hiring managers to develop more detailed interview questions to better understand candidates’ personalities and culture fit.

HR professional Gurpreet Kaur Mann believes detailed interview questions are more useful than references.


Gurpreet Kaur Mann

Wharton’s Dr. Cappelli says that hiring for all levels can also take a cue from executive search, the subfield that focuses on recruiting senior personnel.

“A typical executive-search person will take listed references as just the entry point,” he says. “Then they’ll look up everyone a candidate has worked with and really do due diligence. That kind of thing can be actually useful,” he says. He notes that executive search can devote more resources and time to such a thorough process given the compensation and leverage that senior employees command.

At lower levels, the increasingly optional nature of references is why it’s now standard practice in résumé-writing to leave out references, even placeholder lines like “references available upon request.”

Share Your Thoughts

How much stock should hirers place in job references these days? Join the conversation below.

Career coach Lucy Chen recommends that job hunters leave references off their résumés.


Liqiong Chen

“It just takes up space,” says Lucy Chen, a career coach and résumé writer in San Francisco. Instead, she recommends that people list existing references, if they have them, on their LinkedIn profiles. “That’s where most social proofing happens now, and where many recruiters will be passively browsing your profile.”

Beyond LinkedIn, all kinds of social media accounts have been a part of many job candidates’ digital footprint for over a decade now. Even if traditional references prove optional for a particular role, online information can aid informal reference checks, Ms. Chen says.

Ms. Mann, in Ontario, says she typically looks at candidates’ LinkedIn profiles to corroborate their résumés, but now avoids looking up their accounts on more personal platforms like


and Instagram.

“I really think companies should focus on rigorous interviews to make sure that someone is a good fit at their company. But you don’t need to know everything about their personal lives,” she says. “Hiring is a gamble, like any other relationship.”

Write to Krithika Varagur at krithika.varagur@wsj.com

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