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The true value of previous job references

Are references from previous jobs a necessity in the tech environment? I will tell in first person my experience and why a reference should not be the main decision tool… unless we are 100% sure of the source.

I have been thinking about this topic for a few days because in my head I no longer think the same way as before. Logically, accumulating experiences or being in Joppy helps me to realize many things that I could not understand clearly before.

This is how I have changed my way of looking at references of previous jobs from different candidates. Are they still necessary… or can I do without them?

Costs of recruiting the wrong way

The truth is that I have always been afraid of making mistakes when recruiting. Firing fast and hiring slow is very true. If you hire the wrong candidate (or he/she leaves you in less than six months) the cost is extremely high for the company:

  • Cost of the candidate in salary in those months.
  • Cost if you have needed help from an external recruitment company or platform and the guarantee period has expired.
  • Training and dedication that will turn out to be useless in many cases.
  • Cost of looking for a new person and finding the right one. And that it doesn’t cause a problem for the rest of the team.
  • Other additional costs that are difficult to quantify.

The cost of this mistake can be as much as a year’s salary if you make a mistake and realize it in half a year. Hence the idea of asking for references, to reduce the risk.

References from previous jobs in the selection process

Throughout my career, whenever I’ve wanted to hire someone, in the last or penultimate interview I always asked the interviewee for work references. It could be from his or her former bosses in a job not too far back in time, in order to evaluate out the candidate’s elegibility. I didn’t use coworkers (I didn’t believe their evaluations because they might confuse friendship and work, becoming personal references) or very old jobs because a person evolves professionally over the years and it is difficult to judge a person by what he/she did 5 – 10 years before.

If that candidate did not give me the contact and I knew people in their previous professional career, I would contact them. But I can’t deny that not receiving those reference contacts from the candidate itself did not please me and made me suspicious.

And when I did manage to find that contact, I would ask the typical questions:

  • Clarity as to their true talent in the skills requested in the offer.
  • Vision of the soft skills such as teamwork, autonomy, etc…
  • Know a little bit about their human values to get an idea that there is not a hidden Mr. Hyde.

Internal references from previous jobs are also very important to fill positions in 85% of the job offers.

New view of references from previous works

But honestly, I’ve been way off on the true value of references. In my case, it was almost somewhat differential in a technical tie between two candidates. And I’m going to try to argue this to clarify the bias of a reference:

  • Many times you don’t know the person providing references. You don’t know what he/she is like as a manager, what he/she demands or what he/she values most in a professional and if that is aligned with your ideas. What is their way of working as a team, how the company was doing at that time, etc. …… There are so many nuances that except in very clear data the subjectivity of the reference is maximum.
  • Even if you know the person, the previous point is also valid. I would not work with certain people around me, not because I do not like them, but because we do not fit in ways of working. No one is right, but everyone has their own way of working.
  • There are companies where the person works very well. And there are others where he may have been fired. That’s the way it is. And it’s the same person but in each company the fit is different. And that will happen to almost any candidate.
  • Culturally, every company is different. And not everyone fits for any company even if the functions seem the same. The pressure, teamwork, office / hybrid / remote, hierarchies, type of organization, career plan, type of managers, etc. …. makes us move in a very considerable differences between companies and thus the value of a reference decreases.
  • Each mission or project may require a specific person who is suitable for that project but not for another project, even if it is in the same company. Managers / recruiters are also wrong in what they ask candidates to enter their companies. Many of the skills they ask for are not really necessary and when asking for references you can give importance to things that are not really important.
  • Subjectivity in personal relationships has an influence. Maybe that candidate has had a problem with his manager (or vice versa) that has nothing to do with the job but that influences the reference negatively or too positively for something that is not relevant.

How to include references in your decision process

The list could go on and on, but the arguments are clear. Therefore, the important thing is on the one hand to clarify the value of a reference and on the other hand how we can make that reference really valid. And from there I come up with a few points to keep in mind:

  • Do I know this manager? Do I know how it works or what it asks of its team? If I have no input, it is already a risk
  • Why do I only ask the manager? There may be other colleagues not directly managers but with relevant roles who can give correct references
  • Does the type of organization of the reference resemble my company? If not, hesitate because a consulting firm, a multinational and a startup have nothing in common.
  • Just ask for very objective elements and don’t try to ask for impressions. If you chat for a long time with that manager, and you see that you are aligned, then you can dare to ask something more subjective.
  • Soft skills are key. But assessing them by someone else is dangerous except for objective arguments.

The conclusion in my case is that I don’t always ask for references anymore. And if I do, I try to make them as valid as possible by reducing the margin of error. Because it is more than possible that you make a bad decision to incorporate a bad candidate or discard an ideal one for a reference of dubious value.

Source: devskiller, ayudaley, bizneo

More about IT selection process here

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