As a building products recruiter, I don't think there is a tool that is more important than an interview. The information you learn in an interview is invaluable and should tell you just about everything you need to know about a prospective employee when done right.
The other tools I use to help learn more about candidates are assessments and pre-hire projects. You will learn more from these three tools than you ever will from asking someone what they think about your candidate.
So, I don't ask for personal references.
Unreliable Or Unverifiable Information
Who is on your list of references? Are they from your most recent roles? Were they your manager or responsible for your output?
Just working with someone doesn't mean you can speak to their performance and capabilities. I don't know the true relationship the prospective employee and their reference shared. They might have just been water cooler friends who always give good references for each other. They might be a manager from 25 years ago – hopefully, their career, behavior, and skills have evolved since then.
The information you receive can be old, not applicable or worse, false. You don't really have any way to know or to verify references.
No Quantifiable Results
When you call a reference, it isn't likely they have any information they can share that actually tells you anything. Unless you are calling a recent manager and they happen to keep reports, what information can they give you? Will they be able to confirm someone grew sales by 20% during their tenure? Can they say how many product demos someone did or exactly how many customers they serviced? Probably not.
In the building products industry sales and leadership roles really revolve around numbers. Salespeople know and live by their percentages and numbers. Unless a reference can give you solid quantifiable information, what are they really sharing with you?
Most people are smart enough to only give out names for people who actually like them and will give a glowing review. So, all good references show me is they have friends or great relationships. I can probably think of 300 people right now who would say something nice about me if you called them. That doesn't mean you should hire me based on that. I am not going to give you a number for someone I don't get along with. And, you can bet I will stack the deck with people who really like me.
So what information are you getting? I would say not much and you just waste time.
There are better, easier ways to get the information you need. Without picking up the phone.
When you call a reference, are they in the right industry, channel or niche? I am willing to bet almost everyone in the world has a few references that really aren't at all applicable to their current career.
I have been a lifeguard, worked in retail, an HR manager and a variety of other roles. Do they really apply to my success recruiting in the residential building products industry for 14+ years…..probably not so much?
Unless their references are all from their current role, how can you know if any of the information applies?
The Better Options
First and foremost, if you have a great interview process you don't need references. There is nothing in a reference that you shouldn't be able to find out from talking with a candidate. Ask the right questions and demand the right answers and you will be better off. Fix your hiring and interview processes if they aren't giving you the information you need.
There are recruiters who say checking references is the best way to verify employment history. It is important to verify employment history, but calling references is far from the only way to go about it.
If a candidate says you can contact their past employers, spend your time on the phone doing employment checks. Find out when the candidate worked and anything else you can legally verify. Better yet, there are web-based services you can use for a minimal cost and which provide way more reliable information than someone hand-picked by the candidate.
Reference checks may have been important, but they’ve really lost all value they once had. We’re a far more litigious society than we used to be and due to tighter regulations, no one will (or even can) tell you very much. The time you’d spend doing reference checks could be much better spent!