Do references have a use-by date?

09.03.17

Do references have a use-by date?

In a volatile jobs market where people change jobs frequently, work overseas, and transition between industries, how relevant is a reference from previous managers of 3 years ago?

We know that references make all the difference in identifying the right candidate for a job. But increasingly, hiring managers are finding it challenging to obtain references that are relevant and insightful.

The problem is that people’s memories become vague over time – if a candidate has good longevity in their most recent role, line managers from previous positions are unlikely to be able to recollect details or provide up-to-date information.

For more junior candidates especially, big changes in their skills, experience and attitude may have occurred in the intervening years – for better or for worse.

What can we do to take better references?

1. Check your hiring process.

Look at the reference criteria in Does it reflect the appropriate amount of rigour for your industry sector? For example, if you’re hiring a salesperson and the candidate has been in their role for 2 years, it may be more relevant to take two references from their current role (such as one from a line manager, one from their client) than their last two direct line managers. And you wouldn’t take 6 references from previous managers for a midweight receptionist.

2. Refresh the referee’s memory.

Perhaps with an initial chat. Help them to recall the details of the role, and they may better remember the individual. One on my colleagues always sends a photo of the candidate beforehand to refresh their memory.

3. Adapt your processes if needed.

If a referee’s memory seems vague or you doubt the relevance of a particular referee, you can always request another contact – such as a client or a more senior manager. It’s better to get another reference than to make an offer of employment without completing due diligence.

What’s your experience with references?

Can a reference be accurate if the referee can hardly remember the candidate? When should we look for other referees? Is there anything else you can do?